Page One: Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra: An Oddly Homely Avant Garde

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, © Brian Hartley


Critic Stewart Smith was on point when he opined in a 2014 festival review for The Wire that Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra was extending a Scottish lineage of an “‘oddly homely avant garde.’” (In the UK, “homely” means cozy and comfortable like home, not unattractive as the word is commonly used in the US.) The phrase was artist Alec Finlay’s, who employed it to explain the common ground held in the early 1960s by poets Ian Hamilton Finlay (his father), Hamish Henderson, and Edwin Morgan. Countering the high modernism of the pre-war Scottish Renaissance they viewed as elitist, the poets articulated an aesthetic that accommodated Scottish folk and popular culture, as well as emergent international sensibilities, inciting what Morgan dubbed the Scottish Spring, a period of cultural reclamation that still ripples through new work of sundry disciplines in Scotland.

This homeliness immediately cut through the soft alienation of live streams during the Orchestra’s GIOfest XIV in late November 2021. Gladness permeated the proceedings, their first in-person festival in two years. An improvising orchestra is usually a solemn, even somber lot, but there was ample grinning during the festival’s final set among GIO members, as well as MC Corey Mwamba, who curated an opening set of small groups to be heard on an early January episode of his BBC Radio 3 program, Freeness. A trio of women seated upstage – Cliona Cassidy, who sings with Scottish Opera when not improvising with GIO, the inimitable Maggie Nicols, and British-Afghani violinist-singer Faradena Afifi, who had previously only performed with GIO on their Zoom concerts during lockdown – barely kept from laughing heartily. Masks did not dampen the robust vocal approval of the full-house audience at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. It was beyond a homecoming; it was a celebration of the light at the end of the tunnel, though no one then knew the light was an oncoming train, Omicron.

 

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The dawn of the 21st century saw another flourishing of Scottish arts. Glasgow had become an internationally recognized hub of contemporary visual arts, particularly sculpture, installations, and environmental works. Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon were part of the second wave of The Young British Artists – she was nominated for The Turner Prize in 1997; he received it the year before, beginning a three-year streak, also winning the Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale and the Hugo Boss Prize. Others like Martin Boyce were following in their wake – he’d win the Turner in 2011.

The same could not be said about new and experimental music in Glasgow, even though “there were lots of little pockets of activity around free improvisation,” Raymond MacDonald recently detailed. The saxophonist and guitarist George Burt worked together in various configurations that used written materials and free improvisation, sometimes bringing in Lol Coxhill. Burt was a member of Tubular Bells bassist Lindsay Cooper’s The Ornelious Jellybird Joys, a group of free improvisers and trad jazz players who explored improvised counterpoint. MacDonald and bassist Una MacGlone had played in the experimental pop band Future Pilot AKA (which is also the nom de voyage of its leader, multi-instrumentalist Sushil K. Dade), which integrated free improvisation into its music. MacDonald and MacGlone also created improvised material for film and television soundtracks – both with David Byrne on Young Adam, an early vehicle for Ewan MacGregor, and MacDonald with music producer Giles Lamb on the detective series, Taggart.

Despite their respective activities and those of numerous colleagues and acquaintances, there was no home for free improvisation in Glasgow. Graham McKenzie, then music director at CCA, had been supportive of the community, having recruited the Scottish musicians that performed Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game II/10 during the 2000 edition of Free RadiCCAls, the biennial festival curated by Evan Parker. Most of David Keenan’s comments about the performance in his festival review for The Wire focused on “Scotland’s key players” like MacDonald, pianist Bill Wells (“Scotland’s answer to Sun Ra”) and a particularly vigorous Burt (“Who’d thought that Scotland would muster up a wiseass retort to Sonny Sharrock?”).

MacDonald and drummer Stewart Brown proposed creating a club setting at CCA for free improvisation to McKenzie the next year, initiating dialogue. As McKenzie and Parker began scheduling the 2002 edition of Free RadiCCAls, MacDonald pitched a workshop and a public performance for a large ensemble of local improvisers.  McKenzie clearly liked the idea, but stipulated that MacDonald needed to enlist 25 improvisers before he took the idea to Parker. “I guaranteed I could do it,” MacDonald recalled. MacGlone was the 26th. “I felt it was the moment where that could happen,” he continued. “And Evan said yes. At that time, it was just about bringing these people together. I had no idea about where it might go. I remember Evan said at the end, in his very Evanesque way, with his avuncular gravitas, that we were all founding members of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.”

McKenzie was all in after the success of the Free RadiCCAls event, availing CCA facilities to GIO to meet once a month without the pressure to give public performances, arranging early pivotal collaborations with Nicols and Keith Rowe (Bob Burnett and Alan Jones’ film about Rowe, What is Man and What is Guitar? was shown at GIOfest XIV), and brokering GIO’s Munich 2003 performance with Parker (documented on the FMR CD, Munich and Glasgow). “I think the venue is absolutely key because groups like London Improvisers Orchestra don’t have such a space,” MacGlone observed. “We’re really lucky to have it. Where would you find a space where you could have 20 or 25 musicians without paying a lot of money? The stability of our relationship with CCA is really central.”

Subsequently, GIO quickly morphed from good idea to going concern; beyond regular gigs and an annual festival, they created educational and community outreach projects like GIOdynamics, an “open-mic” monthly improvisation session, and GIObabies, workshops for children aged 5 and under. This posed a myriad of issues concerning democratic and transparent processes. “We were quite resistant to having some overseeing board,” MacDonald admitted, “but there’s been a very clear approach. Obviously, we need funding to attract musicians to come play with us, resourcing the place we played in, and some funding so that it can be acknowledged that what we are doing is professional, that this isn’t a hobby, that we were pulling together professional players. We started making applications very early on to what was then the Scottish Arts Council – now Creative Scotland – to help support the group; but what we didn’t do, and this was a very clear decision, was to appoint an administrator. We didn’t ask for office resources, we didn’t ask for that sort of infrastructure that takes up vast amounts of money. I knew we wouldn’t be able to get the same level of funding as Scottish National Jazz Orchestra or the Scottish Symphony Orchestra or Scottish Opera. We knew we would get smaller amounts of money – £10,000 or £15,000 – enough that everyone in the band got paid, and we could afford to bring someone like George Lewis very early on, commission him to write a piece for us, and perform It with him. We didn’t want to become dependent on that funding, because once you employ a full-time administrator, you’re ethically bound to find the funding to pay for that administrator, possibly before you pay the musicians.”

“Basically, we all took on the responsibilities of fundraising, writing applications, and collaborating on all that to varying degrees over the history of GIO,” seconded MacGlone. “Raymond has always been involved in writing grant applications; but we’ve all taken roles in project management – all the roles that an orchestra manager and a publicity person would do. We’ve done all these things. There are advantages to that, there’s a certain flexibility, agency, ownership, control – all of these things we’ve maintained doing it this way, and we’ve learned a whole lot by doing them.”

“Everything has been project-based,” Burt concurred. “It was individual interests or obsessions that sometimes determine projects; but if you wanted to do it with GIO, you’d have to find the money, you organize it, you book the accommodations, that sort of thing – project-based. If you do it that way, you’ll have commitment and enthusiasm. The first project we did as a formal group with Barry Guy had an educational component – I’ve always been quite keen on that. This group of musicians is so diverse, and their backgrounds are so diverse, it’s important for them to know the free improvisation process, and how that process works in their minds – it’s a self-education process outside the academic situation. I think that process goes on all the time in GIO.”

When discussing the artistic evolution of GIO, the occasional use by Burt, MacDonald, and MacGlone of “negotiate,” “debates,” and “gentle disagreements” signal that most everything concerning GIO’s direction has been and remains open to discussion. Even its genesis, as Burt emphasizes the catalytic impact of the 2000 Guy performance more than the others: “I think the Barry Guy event showed us what was possible, because some people say you can’t have an improvising group of more than three or four people.”

At the core of these discussions lies critical distinctions between free improvisation and the use of scores and signals to direct improvisation, and what weight each has in GIO’s work. “George’s notion was that we have a sustained and strategic and passionate commitment to free improvising,” MacDonald underscored. “We’ve had very intense discussions about the utility of conductions as a way of structuring large group improvising, and we’ve had a commitment to free improvising that most other large ensembles don’t have.”

“One of the things that interested me about conduction was that I saw as a resource for improvisation,” Burt said. “It was an avenue open to us, whether we used it or not, the idea of free improvisation being used for a composer’s vision. I got that strongly from Barry Guy.”

“I use graphic scores, and I love conduction,” admitted MacGlone, who encountered a mid-2000s session led by Butch Morris in New York. “But there has to be a very good reason for doing it. There has to be an artistic reason. For me, when large group improvisation works, the collective negotiations, musically and socially, between many people is the pinnacle of achievement. It’s a quite controversial and difficult thing to do – free improvisation is not easy – and we’ve had debates about it for twenty years about playing free, improvised music, playing scores and different reading levels, creativity and agency. But we’ve maintained this commitment to free playing, and that’s really important.”

“George [Burt] doesn’t like conduction,” MacDonald disclosed. “He has philosophical objections, but one of the most important compositions written for GIO is by George, and it involves conduction. George has found a way to use conduction while still acknowledging the philosophical and artistic objections to it, and he folded them into this composition with Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill [Improcherto (for HB): iorram, 2011]. It’s a very important composition in the development of the band.”

“For me, it exemplifies what we were talking about before – accommodating everyone’s position in the score, MacGlone asserted. “As a brief sidebar, I teach improvisation at conservatoires and George’s score is one I always go to, because it’s all there on a Post It note.”

“That inclusion comes from Maggie,” Burt claimed. “It’s about the community, even if you don’t agree with them. You try to bring that into the collective consciousness of the band, as it were.”

 

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GIO’s history of discourse is reflected in its history of collaborations. Once you move beyond “improviser” or “improvisation-privileging composer,” their collaborators are a diverse lot, with different orientations towards various issues. Guy is at one end of the spectrum; while he provides significant latitude to performers in his compositions, he creates beautifully drafted, precisely detailed scores, often inspired by visual art and literature. He also has an exacting approach to directing a piece through rehearsals and performances, and a firm idea of how the music should sound. In the case of Schweben – Ay, but can ye? – his 2009 commission from GIO – Guy connects paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and a Vladimir Mayakovsky poem, translated into Scots by Edwin Morgan. The performance was book-ended on the 2012 Maya CD by recordings of the aged, ailing Morgan reading his translation and speaking about Mayakovsky, further contextualizing the work. In his booklet text, Burt wrote that Guy’s inclusion of the Edwin Morgan translation “spoke right to the heart of GIO’s relationship to the language and the politics of Scotland.”

Nicols is at the other end of the spectrum, entering collaborations focused on generative processes that apply equal value to every sound from every source, naïve or schooled. “Mixed abilities ensembles” is a term that has recently gained currency primarily through Nicols’ stewardship of The Gathering, the ad hoc forum that welcomes all. Nicols has been a sufficiently regular participant in GIO concerts that she is no longer singled out as a guest artist. Subsequently, there is an evolution to the work she has created with GIO. Which Way Did He Go (FMR; 2005) are stand-alone conductions, while Energy Being (FMR; 2019), inspired by the Lindsay L. Cooper poem “A Madman’s Approach to Music,” falls within the present-day parameters of long form, improvisation-privileging composition, with set-ups for portions of the text to be read by Burt, Nicols, and actor Tam Dean Burn, and even a springy vamp-based passage.

Regardless of their orientation, MacDonald contends GIO’s collaborators are just that – collaborators. “I think there is a distinction between inviting people to come and collaborate with us,” he explained, “as opposed to a composer coming in and saying, here’s my composition, we play his composition, and you go [claps hands], that’s marvelous, that’s great. We’ve always wanted to collaborate. Maggie, George Lewis, Evan, Keith Rowe – these people were up for collaborating. At the same time, we’ve fostered our own approach to free improving and straddling that gray area between improvisation and composition.  George Burt’s piece [Improcherto (for HB)] exemplifies that approach, because he wrote the piece for the band, having been in the band, and using elements of conventional composition.”

“I think the different people we’ve worked with have brought out different aspects and interests of the band,” MacGlone elaborated. “There will be certain people in the band that are drawn to one experimental approach to improvisation or another. I think Maggie enhances the aspects of community, the family aspect that Corey Mwamba speaks about. When we met Corey, we were, ‘Oh, you’re one of us.’ We pride ourselves on our hospitality:  that’s to do with the band, with Maggie, and with Glaswegian thing – our motto is ‘People make Glasgow.’ It’s a bit of a tacky motto, but we are known to be friendly. We’ve taken it on to be hospitable, and I think Maggie enhances those aspects of hospitality, while other musicians enhance other aspects of the band. I think we’re slightly different from The Gathering; where we’re alike is that it’s about the people in the band, that everyone has an artistic contribution to make to the band.”

“I think that’s exactly right in the sense that Maggie brought a strong ethical position on conviviality and openness, but not in a mealy-mouthed way,” MacDonald concurred. “This is part of the music; this is what allows the music to thrive. People feel they have permission to be who they are, and to express themselves in any way they want: then, the music will thrive, the creativity will thrive, and we move on to create good work. When she first came to work with us, we had the opportunity to invite ten new people to join what was called Summer School with Maggie Nicols. We had over 30 people apply to these ten invitations. We had a committee, looked over the applications, and selected the ten people who joined the band at that point. As soon as Maggie came in, she made a point of referring to the ten people who had been invited as equals, that she didn’t want to do was create some kind of two-tier system. That was a very ethical, principled approach to the way the music was socially organized, and it manifested in the music itself. Maggie is often talked about being an activist, someone who is very political, but that crucially informs the music, that allows the music to be what it is. It’s not some sort of box-ticking exercise that we’re open and hospitable – it’s in the DNA of the band, and it has allowed the band to be what it is. Maggie brings that and other people who come to work with the band bring that.

“But, as Una pointed out, we’re different from The Gathering,” MacDonald responded. “When Maggie first came, we did get involved with some quite difficult discussions. At the same time, we had this openness in the band, we had contemporary classical composers who were at the core of the band. For them, the idea of anything goes was anathema to them. They found that very difficult to deal with. We had to find a way to negotiate these two agendas. On the one hand, we’re a free and open improvising ensemble, but at the same time, we’re looking to take the music forward from where contemporary composition was going. Nick Fells, Pete Dowling, Neil Davidson – these people had that sort of training as composers, it was part of their identity, so we had to find a way to incorporate the freedom associated with Maggie with the more austere principles of contemporary composition. We spent a long time discussing this. We used to joke that if you came to a GIO session, you’d spend two hours talking and one hour playing.”

“Bringing George Lewis is relevant to this,” MacGlone suggested. “It almost illustrates his idea of Eurological and Afrological approaches to improvisation. There were times in these discussions when they got polarizing, when people defend these positions, instead of trying to move pass them. It’s been part of the evolution of the band. There were some people in the band who hated the talk – it was quite alienating to them to get into it. I’m a talker. I love talking about it, but I was aware of everyone, so we had to find our way through these issues about what we do, what we wanted to do, and how we want to spend our time. Sometimes, you have to strategize your way out of these issues. George [Burt], Raymond and I have all written pieces for the band; rather than writing for a bunch of improvisers, we’re writing it for the band, and we keep these issues in mind, because we know there are people in the band who hold polar opposite positions on particular issues, and so it is a matter of how we bring everyone in together in the same space be creative, collaboratively. It’s constant problem solving.”

“There’s one great example of what Una mentioned about people who didn’t like to talk,” said MacDonald. “We used to have someone in the band, John Burgess – who comes from the very strong Scottish jazz tradition – who would ostentatiously flap his newspaper to read it. That was his way of saying, ‘Stop talking guys, and let’s play.’”

“Going back to what was being said about Maggie,” Burt pivoted, “that insistence she had in her workshop about emotional honesty and working as a community, I would find that would be quite difficult in other places. Some actors talk about digging deep. I found after a few days working with Maggie, even now, it is completely draining. She insists on this emotional honesty and community approach. The only other person that made me feel that way was Keith Rowe, but in an opposite way, insisting to take everything seriously. If he’s scraping a contact mic on a piece of sandpaper, it’s like Clifford Curzon playing Mozart. [Rowe refers to Curzon, an acutely self-critical pianist, in What is Man and What is a Guitar?, the documentary film shown at GIOfest XIV.] It’s that intensity. It’s the intensity that Keith Rowe brings and the emotional honesty that Maggie brings that makes them key figures.”

“We look beyond the parochial boundaries of the music – that’s where George Lewis, Keith Rowe, Maggie Nicols, Joëlle Léandre, Jim O’Rourke, Barry Guy, come in,” MacDonald commented. “We played in Munich in 2003 and got reviewed in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and they referred to us being in the Premier League of the improvisational scene, and we came back to Glasgow and did a concert at CCA, and the reviewer goes back to this idea we have in Scotland ‘ah kent his faithe.’. There’s this parochialism that you encounter in Scotland: Don’t get too big for your britches; I know where you came from. ‘Ah kent his faithe’ means I know your father; I know where you come from. It’s complementary, but it’s damning faint praise. Whatever Sueddeutsche Zeitung may think, we know where we come from; but we have to look beyond Glasgow and Scotland in order to make our mark. I think that’s where being in the CCA and working with Graham McKenzie in those early days were important, for he saw the danger – Scottishness has so many wonderful things about it, but it can also be parochial and inward looking. We’ve always strived for the conviviality and homeliness that Stewart Smith wrote about, but we’ve clearly looked beyond. That’s where we took a leaf out of the Scottish contemporary arts scene at the time. The Scottish contemporary arts scene at that time was making its mark, globally. They were showing the world what it meant to be from Scotland, but being Scottish did not define their identity.  They are contemporaries of mine – I went to school with Martin Boyce. He was an inspiration, because he showed me how to have your own ideas, your own way of being, and look beyond the confines of Scotland. Balancing these two aspects were really important.”

 

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Gerry Rossi is not exaggerating when he says he has known Raymond MacDonald since he was very, very small – the pianist is his uncle. They first played together in the mid-1980s when the teenaged saxophonist played in Rossi’s jazz-rock unit, which mixed originals with covers of Weather Report, Frank Zappa and Steely Dan – they were also influenced by Ornette Coleman and experimented with free music. Rossi also directed a big band that played Mingus charts. “There was a small nucleus of us that really enjoyed taking it out to a degree,” he said in January.

Rossi’s day job – managing European operations for an American manufacturer of automobile dashboards and mobile phone fascias – required him to regularly travel to the US during the 1990s, pulling him away from the scene. However, he remained enough of a presence in Glasgow to be appointed director of the Applied Music Course at the University of Strathclyde in 2002, coincidental to GIO’s genesis at Free RadiCCAls. “It was the first ‘hybrid’ degree course in Scotland incorporating classical, jazz, contemporary and traditional musical styles, with technology and community music embedded in the course.” Rossi explained. “It was the first course to include free improvisation in its syllabus. We had a large free ensemble performing regularly.”

Like other GIO members, Rossi’s CV reflects intersections of academic and community work, and roughly follows the arc of the integration of improvisation studies into degree programs over the past two decades. Rossi’s activities complement those of GIO colleagues like Una McGlone, who teaches and facilitates improvisation in settings as diverse as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and GIObabies. MacGlone, MacDonald and GIO saxophonist Graeme Wilson, have, in addition to teaching, written extensive academic papers on improvisation – MacDonald and Wilson co-authored The Art of Becoming: How Group Improvisation Works (Oxford University Press, 2020), a book whose refreshing plainspokenness stands in stark contrast to the gratuitously knotty language permeating the literature. Additionally, Rossi currently works, as does George Burt, with disabled musicians.

Rossi took over GIO’s piano chair from Giles Lamb in 2007 and was on board for GIO’s first project with George E. Lewis, which initially yielded the composer’s Metamorphic Rock (Iorram) (Artificial Life 2007 was also performed then, but it is a 2012 performance with Lewis that was issued by FMR). For a jazz-oriented pianist, playing with GIO was a challenge. “It took me a while,” he recounted. “I’ve always been nervous about the unexpected and the spontaneous. I had to develop a frame of mind so that I can just react to what’s around me in the most natural way. I see myself as a sideman rather than a front man. I’m most comfortable trying to complement what’s going on around me, rather than try to initiate too much. I’ve been lucky because I played in small groups with people like George Lewis, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, and Lol Coxhill, and I played off them, which seemed to work.”

By 2008, GIO’s administration and grant applications were handled a half-day a week by cellist Jessica Kerr. Rossi stepped in when Kerr took leave and coordinated the logistics of GIOfest II. “Compared to what we had gotten before, we got a significant amount of funding from the Arts Council of Scotland with the proviso that we had someone to manage it and report back to them on a quarterly basis,” said Rossi. “I took that on. Jessica didn’t come back and I continued to do that job and have done it ever since. I leave the artistic decisions to others. I work with the funding from various sources – Creative Scotland, the BBC, and media companies here, as well as universities.”

Shrugging off the suggestion that he is the sergeant that runs the army, Rossi’s acknowledges his role as General Manager has subsequently grown as GIO expanded its programs and its network. “Every year, GIO has expanded a little. The festivals have gotten bigger; we’ve done a few more concerts; two or three people might play concerts outside of Scotland – we’ve had people twice go to Australia to work with [trumpeter and Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra] Peter Knight on his creative music intensive program, for which we had funding from a number of sources.” GIObabies has gone on for about 12 years now; GIOdynamics since 2018. Overseen by guitarist Jer Reid, the monthly gathering, according to Rossi, lets “people try free improvisation and not have the worry or the expectation of anything but relaxing and enjoying themselves.” 

Rossi’s tenure also coincides with steady growth in GIO’s funding, a key, if lagging, indicator of an arts organization’s impact. The growth in GIO’s funding coincided with strides in their artistic growth – the scope and scale of events; inclusion of a widening circle of guest artists – and recognition – increased and diverse audiences, as well as press coverage – a confluence occurring in the years immediately preceding the pandemic. Without that sustained, intertwined growth in funding and artistic development and outreach, GIO’s survival may have been seriously jeopardized, as lockdown immediately proved to be the sternest mother of invention in GIO’s history.  Like many others, GIO sought to ride it out on Zoom, mindful of the medium’s untested ability to sustain existing audience – or retain the confidence of funders.

“The Zoom sessions took on a life of their own,” he remarked. “We were able to have people from all over the world improvise together – Brazil, North Africa, and America. It was a new way to improvise. We now run an online and a in-person GIOdynamics. The online sessions were mainly Jessica Argo’s idea. We were a bit skeptical, but we tried it, and now it’s been nearly two years of working this way – logging in and playing music for two hours. We worked very closely with John Russell during the year before he died. It was heartbreaking because we loved John – he was a father figure for a lot of what we’re doing – but he came to those sessions in his last months every week, wearing a bright suit with a bow tie, and that became really important to us.”

Keeping GIOdynamics going was one thing; having an online festival was something else. Having already received the funding for the 2020 GIOfest, they had to scramble. “We approached our funders and put together a plan for delivering the festival on a virtual basis,” Rossi explained. “We had very little knowledge about how to do that, and very few people had done it. We contacted the TUSK Festival in Newcastle, who had done it three months before, and they were really key to solving the technological issues we were facing. We had a number of live events delivered over Zoom, a series of films, and discussions in which members of the community and people all over the world could take part in.”

As lockdowns and restrictions persisted into 2021, GIO’s use of visuals grew more sophisticated.  Not only did improvisers use unique backgrounds, they utilized motion media and graphic scores that changed in real time. “We learned so much that, when we were allowed to come back into the CCA and deliver the festival as normally do, we continued to present some events online,” Rossi continued. “We also had offline events in the cinema space. We showed films every day, including lockdown sessions that had been remastered and edited by Ross Birrell, the director of those sessions. Some of them were made by the musicians especially for the festival. On Friday night, we had large screens in the CCA and we had musicians from all over the world improvising with us. Their audio was captured in such a way that we could mix everything together, so they sounded like they were in the space with us. That’s relatively groundbreaking. I don’t know of very many people who have done that.”

Rossi was already making applications for GIOfest XV, which will be pushed back to end of November to avoid conflicts with the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. “It’s our 20th anniversary,” Rossi noted, “so I think now is the time for GIO to be expanding in Scotland, the UK, and Europe, capitalizing on what we’ve built, bringing on younger people like Maria [Sappho] and Jessica [Argo] to take on specific roles. I find expansion and the future to be very much related. The festival is a big part of that, but so are having concerts in Glasgow and elsewhere in the UK and Europe, and, if we get the funding, sending out a group of 10 over to Germany and Italy for two festivals.

“We’re hoping that in 2023 we have a longer-term funding relationship with Creative Scotland. We’ve been talking to them for about five years for getting regular funding on a long-term basis, comparable to organizations like Scottish Opera or Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. We aspire to that.

“More and more, GIO is about making improvisation a life-long pursuit, a fundamental part of creativity. Improvisation is being seen more as a process, a catalyst for change, an opportunity for inclusion, equality, and democracy. The implications are social and political. We want to be part of that.”

 

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In the beginning, improvised music was dominated by males with a jazz background. Today, the art form is increasingly represented by women. GIO mirrors that trend. Una MacGlone and flutist Emma Roche were the only women who performed on the orchestra’s 2003 debut CD, Munich and Glasgow (FMR) – a 10% participation rate. More than a dozen performed on the 2013 and ’14 concerts that comprise Parallel Moments Unbroken (FMR) – and most of them played in both – increasing female participation to 40% and more. GIO’s female members tend to have what are now familiar components in the profiles of women in improvised music: classically trained from a tender age through conservatory; graduate research into the intersections of music, sociology and psychology; and teaching.

Pianist Maria Sappho and cellist Jessica Argo are emblematic points on this arc, both having spent much of their respective childhoods gaining the necessary instrumental proficiency for entry into elite institutions, then determining mid-course that the standard path was not for them, and having a sense of liberation when they encountered GIO. Arguably, Sappho could now be considered a veteran, having joined GIO in 2015 when the Brooklyn transplant was finishing undergraduate studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  The same might be said about Argo, depending upon how you date her involvement.  She first met Raymond MacDonald a decade ago at an Institute of Music and Social Development conference in 2012; but her commitments to a Masters program and then research for her PhD delayed her full participation in GIO for several years.

“I was very much a classical pianist and only played classical music,” Sappho said of her early years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (she is now a Research Assistant at Huddersfield University). She was only then becoming interested in contemporary classical music when the conservatoire brought in two Estonians – pianist Anto Pett and singer Anne-Liis Poll – as a part of a course on free improvisation. “It was totally outside the realm of what I thought music was,” she said of her initial exposure. “I don’t think I had heard about it before. But I took that course, and when I realized there was no score at all, it was a big plus for me. I really liked that it was improvised entirely. It was not even jazz. There was freeness in that, and I had no idea that that was allowed.”

Pett’s approach was very classically minded, with a strict and rigorous regimen of exercises that Sappho pursued for a couple of years. “Talking as the person I am now,” Sappho explained, “this sounds really strange; but, where I was in my life, it was quite good. This was something I could try out and try to develop a methodology to do it.”  Sappho then took MacGlone’s free improvisation module at RCS, which prompted the bassist to invite Sappho to a GIO rehearsal. “I didn’t know if it was an interview; I just played with everyone,” Sappho recalled. “Raymond was really encouraging and made me feel that I belonged and had something to contribute. Meeting the orchestra was quite scary. It’s a close-knit family, everybody knows each other, so it was a little bit intimidating for a young person to come in, who really didn’t do this much; but that was the change of my entire career. I completely figured out what I was supposed to do, where I was meant to be as an artist, and GIO was the whole core to me figuring out who I was not only as a musician, but as an activist and a social being. I’ve been in the orchestra for seven years now, and it’s still the core of my love of life.”

Sappho now runs the improvisation module developed by MacGlone.

Argo had taken all the exams and played in a symphony orchestra; but instead of entering a conservatoire, the cellist studied painting in Edinburgh. It was at art school that Argo first explored using video with graphic scores, and juxtaposing music and paintings. She performed some of this work at the pivotal 2012 conference, which MacDonald thought would be a good fit with GIO. Although she attended a few sessions that year with GIO, she soon put her work with the orchestra on pause when she “got quite lost” in her research.

“Immersed” might be a better characterization, given that her work centered on creating spatial soundscapes and 3D visuals “to trigger questioning in the audience’s psyche.” It can be likened to a high-tech mode of gestalt therapy, in that it aims to elicit in a therapeutic setting a cathartic response to aid in the identification and alleviation of underlying sources of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, which are then discussed in counseling. “I made six soundscapes that we played back using ambisonic sound in a laboratory to be listened to and have physiological effects monitored, and then have questionnaires filled out after,” Argo explained. “It’s using sound for trying to delve into difficult emotions, rather than music for joy, so it’s kind of the opposite of what Raymond does with music and well-being.”

Once she completed her clinical work, Argo joined GIO, participating in every live and online session since. “The PhD was focused on creating fixed soundscapes like musique concrète,” Argo said. “I used instruments, but it was more like a design for a film, whereas with GIO I focus on making live sounds with other people. I released myself from the windowless lab that I was locked in. I love being in a room – or a Zoom – with other people.”

Neither Argo nor Sappho were conversant in the history of improvised music in the UK when they joined GIO. However, they were not handicapped as a young jazz player would be not knowing, say, Monk tunes, as improvised music replaced the agonistic conventions of jazz – cutting contests, drum battles, etc. – with cooperative practices.

“When I entered GIO I realized very quickly there was a huge UK scene, that a lot of that crossed over into the contemporary music scene, and that I was playing with some important people,” Sappho admitted. “I didn’t really know who Maggie Nicols when I met her, and as I learned about her, it was like ‘Wow.’ She was really lovely with me, this important pioneer. Playing in GIO obviously obsessed me so much that now my PhD is about free improvisation. I was so in love with this world and its lineage became quite tangible to me, because I had access to so many of these great improvisers. With a classical musician’s mind, I hadn’t considered all of this was possible. It is so far removed from classical music.”

“It’s funny that you mentioned Maggie,” Argo said, responding to Sappho. “The first public event I was invited to perform with GIO at the Glasgow Jazz Festival was playing one of Una’s graphic scores and one by Emma [Roche], but there was also an event where we did vocal improvisations with Maggie. I loved how many types of workshops there was. Events where you didn’t need immaculate knowledge of everything to join. It was genuinely quite open. and particularly with something like improvised vocalization – which, as a cello player who can physically hide behind the instrument – made me nervous to try it in public. I always felt supported. If someone recommends someone you’ve never heard of, that’s how you learn. That extended into GIOfest last year with the film about Keith Rowe. We’re always learning together.”

“There was, as Jessica was saying, no judgment,” Sappho continued. “If someone mentioned Derek Bailey, and you said ‘Who?’ there was no one saying you can’t do this. I knew there was a whole history that I didn’t know, and I was excited and vigilant in learning it, as soon as I recognized that it existed. So much of this is oral history. And there’s no prerequisites to playing. Again, I have this really weird dual experience with free improvisation. With Anto, there wasn’t really a right or wrong way, but there was technique, things to practice, methodology, a very structured way. When I met GIO and they told me it doesn’t always need to be that way. That blew my mind. So, I came with skill and I came with technique and stuff I felt competent in using, and they said I didn’t have to do those things. That was the last step to me realizing that free improvisation was more of what of I was looking for. I was really excited to leave behind even graphic notation and text scores, and suddenly there was no score, and being myself was all there was being asked of me.

“I started playing the piano at two and a half, and have been free improvising my entire life,” Sappho continued. “But no one told me you could do it outside private practice. That was the reason I loved music. That was the reason I went to class. That’s the reason I stayed and became a pianist. I didn’t do the composition route, so there was no option that I could just compose one day. I went from doing this in secret, really, to having a whole room of adults saying that this is something you do, that you’re fantastic at it, and we want you to be part of us.”

GIO had a similar impact on Argo. “Being brought up to play a piece again and again to the point of near-perfection – or being compared and contrasted at a music festival, where six or more groups of cellists play the same piece – were thrilling challenges growing up,” she contextualized. “But to be trusted to use my own gestures and not have to play in a certain key or time signature or rhythm was amazing – at the same time, I was working on sound designs for films. GIO is an orchestra where I feel my in-the-moment decisions and gestures are valued. I thought I was actually sharing something about my identity other than the expressive gestures tailored to a fixed piece of classical music. I felt my musical creativity was valued in a new and exciting way.”

Sappho and Argo concur that GIO represents an oddly homely avant-garde. “What we always say is that it’s family,” said Sappho. “When I joined GIO, I had the choice of maybe going to CalArts for my Masters or somewhere else. I was at that transition point when you’re an immigrant and your visa is expiring; but there was so much that was drawing me to Scotland. It became my home with GIO and I would have to give that up just like I did when I moved here when I was 17. It’s quite a traumatic process, leaving your home and finding new people. I realized there was this huge base. I credit so much of my career to GIO. Have I not met this orchestra I don’t know who I would be, or if I would even be a musician. That’s how much a family it’s been.”

Argo pointed to the CCA in this regard. “When you think of the architecture we have – the CCA has been a lovely house for us,” she said. “When you have a regular rehearsal space and festival venue, that’s really special. You feel like you’re letting people into your living room. When you’re thinking about homeliness and home, Una was one of the first persons I spoke to at the rehearsal Raymond invited me to. She and Raymond, Gerry, and George have been incredible role models and mentors. From leaving an undergraduate degree in visual arts, I don’t know if I would feel capable of doing a PhD in music and psychology if I hadn’t seen Una doing her PhD and talking about it with me, and Raymond and the others making me feel at home. I’ve lived in Scotland all my life, but it was a bit scary moving to Glasgow, leaving everyone I knew in Edinburgh, so finding this community was really comforting, and that is reflected in the music we’re playing. I’ve done noise-making, improvising sessions with students because I’m currently a lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art – Masters students, undergraduate students, college students – and I can see how nervous some of them are. But I never felt nervous with GIO, even at the beginning, which really helps the music to come out freely.”

“Again,” Sappho emphasized, “it was not just the allowance of making new sounds, it was the acknowledgement that these kinds of communities existed. That is what really blew my mind. I had experienced a lot of negativity and competition. It really was not a happy time before I met GIO. I wasn’t happy making music. It wasn’t just ‘you are free to find out who you want to be as a musician,’ which they wanted to support, but it was a deep sociality which this music can happen in.”

“I think that maybe because of the music we play, it’s like a conversation where we listen to each other,” Argo said. “Improvised music in an ensemble is about empathy, a conversation. We have verbal conversations as well, and we get to know each other with our music, as well. When you say ‘homely avant-garde’ it makes me think of the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Futurists, all of these guys who were posturing and were angry and would show off. They revolutionized art to a degree, but they would say the most outrageous things. The Dadaists had a list of objects that could be used in their performances like urinals, women. So, those avant-gardes don’t seem very homely to me. I don’t think I would have felt at home with them.”

“What GIO did fundamentally that none of my music education – or any other aspect of my education – was the ability to find and create community, so that, now, I don’t have just GIO, but so many different types of GIO,” Sappho concluded. “However, they did it – develop this very stable, loving way of working with each other – I have taken that to other situations when I form my own groups. And all those groups are equally familiar and homely, and I think that has to be traced back to GIO. If all artists had that power to create homeliness where they create art, it would be a different landscape of artistic practice.”

 

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Perennial is defined as lasting or existing for a long or apparently infinite time, enduring or continually recurring. Perennials will be there, no matter how brutal the winter or how late the spring. After 20 years – and particularly the last two – Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra qualifies. The spring of 2022 will be pivotal. If fully implemented, the government’s “living with COVID” strategy may or may not keep the UK open. Regardless, GIO is positioned to thrive.

 

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