'To improvise is to be alive': GIOfest XI celebrates the power of improvisation and universal creativity

'To improvise is to be alive': GIOfest XI celebrates the power of improvisation and universal creativity

The eleventh festival hosted by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra features performances from Instant Composers Pool, Margaret Stewart, Maggie Nicols and the GIO itself

Improvisation is surely the oldest kind of music. Bone flutes have been discovered that date from 44,000 years ago, long before we developed written language or musical notation, so it stands to reason that our earliest attempts at music-making must have been improvised. And yet of all the ways to make music, improvisation is probably the most poorly understood by the average listener.

One of the missions of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra is to change all that. 2018 is the year of the eleventh GIOfest, the GIO's annual festival, in which they bring improvised music to the public, and the public to the music.

When most people think 'improvisation' they probably think of jazz, but there are other ways of improvising in music. In free improvisation, the musicians are guided chiefly by their own ears and their own sense of what's right. The American saxophonist Steve Lacy, who played both jazz and free improvisation, was once asked if he could give in 25 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He replied, 'In twenty-five seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition the composer has all the time in the world to think of what to do in twenty-five seconds, whereas the improviser only has twenty-five seconds.'

This is the kind of off-the-cuff thinking that the GIO champions, and which GIOfest typically presents each year. 2018 is no exception.

The festival takes place at Glasgow's CCA. Day one features two performances, the first from the GIO itself including new members and the great vocalist Maggie Nicols. This is followed by a set from Amsterdam's Instant Composers Pool featuring drummer Han Bennink, who like Nicols is a legend in improv circles (Thu 29 Nov.) The second day features musicians from Australia in the first set, plus a second set in which musicians use traditional Scottish songs as springboards for improvisations (Fri 30 Nov.) The last day's first set consists of members and guests in small combinations, with the second set being the GIOfest traditional collective improvisation, with all the performers in the festival invited. There's also the launch of a new GIO CD featuring two giants of the free improvisation scene, Evan Parker and Marilyn Crispell. But the other side of GIOfest is its workshops.

One of the peculiar things about improvisation is that, if you graph the average person's willingness to have a go at it, against the extent of their knowledge of what it actually is, the line takes the form of an inverted bell curve: the more people think they know about improvisation, the less willing they are to try it, until they reach a certain point--and then all becomes clear. Una McGlone is an in-demand bass player who's worked with David Byrne and Keith Tippett, a founder member of GIO, and an experienced teacher. We asked her, why do people become reluctant to try improvisation, and how can they get over it?

'Skilled musicians can be afraid of improvisation for a few reasons—sometimes they think they will be asked to play something on the spot, and have a harsh evaluation from the teacher. They may also think that improvisation is only possible when they've internalised several rules and riffs. While both of these situations can happen, it couldn't be further from what GIO do in workshops. We emphasise the important of the overall group processes andsound so this takes the pressure off individuals to "perform".'

The result is that people don't so much learn how to improvise, as re-learn how to. Small children improvise music all the time, but the impulse to do so tends to be discouraged as they get older. GIOfest workshops draw on improv's rich repertoire of games, exercises and suggestions, encouraging people to remember how to do what they've forgotten.

'To improvise is to be alive': GIOfest XI celebrates the power of improvisation and universal creativity

Raymond MacDonald (right) and Jer Reid / credit: Mhairi Muir

Raymond MacDonald is another founder member of GIO, as well as being illustrious improvising sax player with more than 50 CDs to his credit, and Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at the University of Edinburgh. As he puts it, 'Young children approach life with unselfconscious enthusiasm and joie de vivre,' he says. 'New environments are opportunities for exploration and discovery, and nowhere is this more obvious that in arts contexts.'

But as MacDonald says, as children get older they learn to become more self-conscious. 'Pablo Picasso said "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." In some respects, with improvisation we are celebrating everybody's universal capacity for artistry.'

At its heart, improvisation is an activity that we engage in all the time--in our conversations, in our relations with other people and in how we express ourselves. The late Albert Murray, one of America's most insightful commentators on music, observed that jazz could be thought of as a representation, within a particular musical language, of how African-American people negotiated their way through American society.

McGlone and MacDonald agree. As MacDonald observes, 'The earliest communication between a parent and a child is essentially a musical improvisation. The cooing and babbling of a baby, and the parental responses and initiations, have melodies, rhythms and interaction components that are quintessentially musical and improvisatory. Musical improvisation therefore plays an essential role in the earliest and most important bonding relationship of our lives – the relationship with our parents.'

McGlone goes even further: 'To improvise is to be alive. We don't have a road map for living and have to deal with an ever-changing world, so we have to adapt, and sometimes change the script completely. Having choice in your life is incredibly important, and being able to action your own choice, in negotiation with others, is a key feature of both musical improvisation, and more general improvising in everyday life.'

Small wonder that those who get a taste for improvisation seldom if ever want to give it up. Try it out for yourself at a GIOfest workshop, and see how exhilarating improvisation can be to watch at one of the concerts.

GIOfest is at CCA, Glasgow from Thu 29 Nov–Sat 1 Dec.


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra's annual festival of improvised music features performances from musicians from all around the world, as well as music workshops for all ages and levels of experience, led by master musician/teachers: a great way to introduce yourself (and your loved ones) to the joy of improvisation.

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