'To improvise is to be alive': GIOfest XI celebrates the power of improvisation and universal creativity
- Alex Johnston
- 2 November 2018
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.