2012 Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Festival

A preview of this year's annual GIO Fest

Highlights of GIO Fest 2012 include new work from Jim O' Rourke and Shetland Improvisers Orchestra

This year Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra celebrate a glorious decade of making it up as they go along. Bringing together musicians from a range of backgrounds - jazz, classical, experimental, electronic - GIO has explored a range of creative approaches, with improvisation at the heart of it all. One of the joys of GIO is that you never quite know what to expect: a stramash of wailing horns, knotty guitar and crashing percussion, or an alien landscape of vocal glossolalia, eerie strings and unidentifiable scrapings and scratchings? Maybe both, maybe neither.

For the fifth annual GIO Fest, the band are reunited with three key collaborators: the great free improvising saxophonist Evan Parker, Edinburgh-born vocalist and founder of the Feminist Improvising Group Maggie Nicols, and trombonist, composer and computer music pioneer George Lewis. Other highlights include the premier of a new piece devised by avant-rock polymath Jim O'Rourke and the first appearance outside Lerwick of the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra.

GIO began when saxophonist and composer Raymond MacDonald was asked to assemble 25 musicians to work with Evan Parker at the CCA's Free Radicals festival in 2000. The List caught up with MacDonald to find out more.

'I can still remember Evan giving us some instructions and starting us off on some improvisations and saying you are now the founding members of the GIO', recalls MacDonald. 'The aim at first was to bring people together to explore improvisation in the broadest possible context, but quite quickly we got the chance to collaborate with other people. The band gelled very well too. 50% of the people there that day are still players in the band and the collective artistic identity that developed in those early stages has been absolutely crucial in terms of maintaining the longevity of the band. And as the band's developed we've looked to explore new projects, develop new ways of working and collaborate as widely as possible, not just with musicians but with artists and filmmakers'.

'To be able to get George Lewis, Evan Parker and Maggie Nicols together for this tenth anniversary project is a dream come true for the band. If Evan Parker's the godfather of GIO, Maggie Nicols is the godmother', laughs MacDonald. 'Maggie's had a very close involvement with the band as well. We've worked with her a number of times. We spent a week working with Maggie quite early on and the bond we developed with Maggie has remained. The other person who has had a huge impact on the artistic development of the band is George Lewis. George is such a charismatic figure and also hugely experienced both in mainstream jazz terms having played with Count Basie and Carla Bley and Gil Evans, but he's also very experienced in contemporary composition work. He's worked a lot with conceptual artists too. So George Lewis is able to speak to all the people in the band and all their different backgrounds. He's very generous with his time and his ideas'.

While the music is improvised, GIO often follow directions or explore a concept. Has MacDonald made specific plans with these artists?

'That's a good question, because as you say a large part of our work is improvised and that's one of the platforms we use for collaborating. But we're also interested in the way in more conventional structural elements merge with free improvisation. So for example George Lewis is devising a new piece for us. He's already written work for us (Metamorphic Rock). George's work, while it's not conventionally scored, he'll have some quite specific instructions for us, to do with listening, to do with arranging the group into smaller ensembles, to do with the sort of material a person might play, the length of time they might play, the dynamics they might use. We're really interested in exploring this relationship between composition and improvisation.

'Maggie Nicols will play with one of the small groups that's evolved out of GIO, the Rope & Duck Company. That's Una McGlone on double bass, Aileen Campbell voice and Emma Roche on flute. Evan Parker and George Lewis will open the festival with a duet. There will be some electronics involved in that set. George and Evan are well known for their work in electro-acoustic music'.

A big draw for many festival goers will be Jim O'Rourke. While the serial collaborator and erstwhile Sonic Youth member won't be there in person, he has written a new piece for the orchestra, which will be premiered on the Saturday.

'I was lucky enough to work with Jim in 2010 on my own CD called Buddy,' explains MacDonald. 'I guess we've maintained contact. Jim hasn't really left Japan in about five years, he's really busy there. But I asked if he'd be interested in devising a new piece for the orchestra. So we chatted about this over emails and he's heard the orchestra's CDs and we discussed various possibilities. We had the first rehearsal of Jim's piece just two days ago. He sent through upwards of 70 individual instructions about how to listen and play and structure an improvised piece. Some of them are quite tongue in cheek. There's quite a lot of humour in the way Jim's structured this piece – play like the person next to you, listen to the quietest instruments. He's also writing the structures up on big cards. If things are going according to schedule, he should be posting those cards to us as I speak!'

The festival also boasts visionary free jazz from pianist Alex Von Schlippenbach's trio with Parker and drummer Paul Lovens. All three were members of the original European improvisers orchestra, The Globe Unity Orchestra, making their presence at the festival all the more apt.

'They've got a reputation as being the free jazz group that's stayed together the longest. I think it's over 40 years now of working and developing together. They're one of the original free jazz supergroups. So to get the chance to have them at the festival is a real boon,' says MacDonald.

'They'll play a pivotal role in the festival. We're hoping they'll also collaborate with GIO as well, because the evening they're playing, the Friday, we've set aside some time for what we call ad hoc improvisations, where anyone who's at the festival will create spontaneous small groups and we'll programme those on the day. But we leave the exact composition of those groups open to allow the unexpected to happen. It could be that a conversation in the bar as two musicians are going for a coffee sparks off an idea and then we're able to incorporate that idea into the festival'.

MacDonald has his own idea for an ad hoc supergroup: 'If you look at the list of musicians that are playing you'll notice that there's four Georges: George Lewis, George Murray, George Burt, George Lyle,' he chuckles. 'I'd love to see those four Georges play together and not just for superficial reasons. They're fantastic players and I think they would sound fantastic together'.

Does MacDonald think attitudes towards improvisation in Scotland have changed in the past 10 years?

'It's incredible. When I first started this ten years ago and was trying to explain to people what we were doing it did feel sometimes like I was trying to justify some kind of anti-social activity. We got some very strange looks and quizzical responses to what we were trying to do. But now it seems that improvisation has become much more accepted. There's an improvising ensemble at Strathclyde University, there's an improvising ensemble at the Royal Conservatoire of Music, the department here at Edinburgh University has improvisation too. So I think over the past 10-15 years improvisation has become a really important musical process, a social process, an artistic process, a place where people can collaborate and develop new ideas, exchange new ideas. Improvisation can work as a way of fostering collaboration between musicians, not just from different cultures, different backgrounds, but across art forms as well. So you can have an artist, a film maker and a musician all coming together using improvisation as a social/creative process. It feels less like as improvising musicians that we're consigned to the margins. Don't get me wrong, GIO aren't going to be playing at Hampden Park supporting U2, but I do think there has been a real recognition of the power and potential of improvisation. To me it feels like an artistic process whose time has come.

And for those who are unsure about coming to GIO Fest, what would MacDonald say to perhaps change their minds?

'Seeing the drama of free improvisation unfold, being in the room and watching the way musicians interact, particularly when it's a large ensemble, I think it's quite accessible and really quite thrilling. Also, Evan Parker is now widely regarded as the most important post-Coltrane saxophonist on the planet so any chance you get to see him, his charismatic playing and the way in which he draws an audience in, is not to be missed. George Lewis and Maggie Nicols are hugely entertaining as well as world leading and pioneering musicians. Whenever Maggie plays there are a lot of laughs, a lot of passion. She has this fantastic ability to touch people and be humorous and also very profound at the same time. There's a real sense of passion and joy around the orchestra. I think people who are unsure about what improvisation is will find something in the festival to engage with'.

GIO Fest V, CCA, Glasgow Thu 29 Nov–Sat 1 Dec, see cca-glasgow.com for ticket and booking information.


Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Festival V

Two days of free jazz and improv music from the GIO and guests (including George Lewis, Evan Parker, Maggie Nicols, The Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio, The Shetland Improvisers Orchestra and the performance of a commission from influential leftfield composer and musician Jim O Rourke of Sonic Youth) to celebrate their…

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