Duke Ellington (1899-1974) gave a lecture at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, during the summer of 1966. He was asked by an audience member to “Improvise something”.
Ellington replied, “I can’t”, and immediately itemized the decisions he had to make before he could play: choose the instrument, choose a tonal language, choose a character or mood, decide where to position his hands, how many fingers to use, and how loud and fast to play. He then proceeded to play what he called a ‘composition’.
In 1971 I accepted a teaching position at York University in Toronto conditional upon me being able to do “whatever I wanted to do”. I chose to oversee, a course in improvisation. The students were majors in music, dance, visual arts and liberal studies.
In my studio I hung bells, drums, gongs, cymbals, temple bowls and other exotic percussion instruments from around the world. No specialized skills are required to play these instruments-one has only to hit them, and their sound possibilities are almost limitless. I did not include a melodic instrument. The students, about 8 of them, met with me two hours, two days a week for one semester.
I asked them to play these instruments, but gave them no instructions on how. I wanted to find out what would happen if they could “do whatever they wanted to do.” I had some practical knowledge of improvisation, but was as new to this studio experience as were they. The prospect of hearing their music excited me and I wanted them to discover sounds without being influenced by me. I hoped they’d be captivated by their explorations. They were eager; delighted by the instruments and thrilled with the idea of no rules.
After a few sessions, even the most enthusiastic students had exhausted their ideas and for the most part, sat self-consciously mute. At that point I began playing with them, individually and groups of two or three. For a while the students were rejuvenated. But these collaborations, as well, lost their spirit. During one session a student began to sing and this reminder of melody encouraged one or two other students to bring melodic instruments to class. But their playing and singing was too timid and rather than broadening the scope of their improvisations, the inclusion of pitch made the music more awkward. Aware of their quandary, the students suggested ideas for guiding their improvisations and I gave them some instructions from compositions I was playing as a professional.
Nothing worked for long. The students were frustrated and perplexed by their inability to understand why they could not make a meaningful music alone or with others. Our sessions had not even given them a repertoire of ideas and techniques to help them launch new explorations. (They were familiar with Pop music, but couldn’t isolate its elements and apply them.) Their music was almost expressionless, though occasionally enlivened by sparks of energy. We finished the semester listening to recordings of contemporary music and discussing our studio experiences. The classes went on for three more semesters, but even with fresh blood, the music continued “dribbling-to-a-tacit”.
The novelty of the course had quickly evaporated. For youngsters with little or no background in music, four hours a week of free improvisation were too much, and too much even with rules to guide them. They lacked experience with the basic elements of music: rhythm, tempo and dynamics. And, though we discussed and experimented with duration, silence, form and structure, they could not comfortably apply these ideas to their playing.1
Vinko Globokar (b. 1934), former director of IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music) in Paris, virtuoso trombonist, composer and improviser, wrote that improvisers “must have a similar reservoir of possibilities-aesthetic points of view. . .” 2
It was this reservoir of possibilities – aesthetic points of view that brought Nexus together in 1971.3 Though our educations differed in some details, we shared the gestures and techniques of trained Western percussionists. We had been exposed to and played Jazz, Rock and Roll, Blues, Country, Folk, Classical, Contemporary and military music. We were flexible in our music making and had a profound interest in sound. We were also close friends.
Nexus was part of a burgeoning interest in foreign ethnic music and our conscious decision to collect and play instruments from other cultures was both technically and musically liberating. The study of western percussion had made us, as some wag put it, “overeducated and underemployed”. Unlike my university students,the sounds of these “new” instruments refreshed our ears and inspired our first informal collaborations. These improvisations had a joie de vivre.
The spirit and communicative skills of Nexus were the inspiration for composer Warren Benson(1924-2005) to produce Nexus’ first concert at the Eastman School of Music in Kilbourn Hall.4 He wrote a poem for the program:
“. . . instruments from all the world
Musicians from two countries
and four private universes
to celebrate being together. . .”
Lukas Foss (1922-2007), the successor to Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA and founder in 1953 of the UCLA Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, told me he’d given up on improvisation because the performers had quickly developed a repertoire of gestures and techniques that, by repetition, made all the performances sound pretty much the same. To Foss, this “reliance on the comfort of the familiar”, as he put it, did not produce improvisation, or, if you will, interesting music.
Nexus formulated no rules to govern its improvisations, but over time, we developed a Foss-like “reliance on the familiar” and absorbed other conventions – Foss’ “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. Particular sounds became signals for change, i.e., a low gong would change loud, fast and dense to soft, slow and sparse. A sudden sharp attach might precipitate a frenzy. Our improvisations tended to be in A-B-A form – fast, slow, fast or loud, soft, loud etc. We gradually quelled our tendency to “vamp until ready”, and our improvisations became shorter, more compact. We learned the values of less-is-more.
To maintain the freshness of our improvisations, we sometimes change our instrumentation completely. We also invite guests who have a “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. In a spirit of collegiality, Nexus usually lets our guests lead, thereby creating a “concerto” experience.
For me, Nexus’ most successful improvisational moments were achieved when everyone did “What they want to do”, without regard for homogeneity. This rare occurrence created a fantasy of concurrent, individual expressions in exquisite balance, and the music floated over us and the audience.
I sent a cassette tape of a Nexus improvisation to Globokar and his response was typically direct (I paraphrase): “You play beautifully together, but it is North American. It is totally rhythmical, pleasant and traditionally structured. It doesn’t interest me. When our percussionist comes to an improvisation concert or recording session, he brings at most three instruments and never repeats a sound.” Globokar’s rule for improvisation was, “always search for something new, never repeat a sound”.5
Nexus’ early free improvisation era has been credited, at least in part, with spawning new professional percussion ensembles. Yet today, all the younger percussion ensembles play written music and, to my knowledge, none of them improvise in public. As my colleague Bob Becker said, “People were more interested in how we played than what we played”. Nexus was an unanalyzable anomaly.
During the last century, composers involved performers in the creation of their works. I experienced this first hand, often under the personal direction of the composer, while performing with New Music Concerts of Toronto, Ontario. These works, in whole or part, were Aleatoric; 6 “ music in which elements traditionally determined by the composer were determined either by a process of random selection or chance operations chosen by the composer, or through the exercise of choice by the performer.” 7 Usually, there was one or more of six principal directives present in these compositions: “Imitate”; “Integrate”; “Hesitate”; “Do the Opposite”; “Do Something Different” and “Improvise”. Improvise was the least effective as it meant to classically trained musicians, “do whatever you want”.8 The results,intentional or not, were often at variance with the composer’s (unstated) intentions.
SOME REALITIES OF IMPROVISATION:
In group improvisations, players have complete freedom of expression, yet cannot with certainty control the beginning or end of the music; the beginning or end of a diminuendo or crescendo; they cannot determine dynamics; instrumentation; range (gamut); timbre; tempo; or, for that matter, any occurrence of sound or silence other than those which they create individually. And even those sounds and silences can be, and often are, rendered inaudible by a colleague. (A tutti silence, cessation of playing, one of composed music’s most gratifying experiences, has practically no chance of occurring in a group improvisation.)
After a Nexus concert in Japan that included a free improvisation, the composer, Toru Takemitsu (1930-96) said to me, “Nexus should not improvise”.
In order to achieve consistently high levels of communication, group improvisers must be guided by rules. These rules may be pre-ordained or, as in the case of Nexus, gradually assimilated during performances over time. The experience of improvising without rules can be fun, but rarely produces memorable music. Memorable is the work of composers. However, free improvisations by certain individuals, alone in a room with their instrument(s), can be an invaluable learning tool. Percussionists by nature “noodle”, and this kind of habitual improvising helps marry them to their instruments.
The most captivating improvisation I ever heard was performed by the great Japanese percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi. Yasunori’s playing of his “Time in Celestial”(1988) took place during a series of Japanese music concerts in New York City.9 During the four days of concerts, his performance received the loudest and most prolonged applause from the sold out audiences. When I asked him about his piece, he showed me some brief notes he’d written on a piece of paper, reminders, or, if you will, rules.
I wish to thank the students of York University who participated in my improvisation course,1972-75, my colleagues in Nexus whose improvisations have always amazed me and Austin Clarkson, Professor emeritus of music, York University, Stepan Wolpe and John Cage scholar, who arranged Nexus’ first university residency at York University in 1973 and whose questions and editorial skills greatly improved my initial efforts with this article.
For examples of Nexus improvisations with guests, see: out of the blue, Nexus and Fritz Hauser, Nexus records-10814 and Garden of Sounds with Richard Stoltzman, BIS records-CD1108.
Spontaneous Nexus improvisations can be heard on: ORIGINS, Nexus records 10295. .
1 For other pedagogical approaches to free improvisation, see Cahn, William L., (2005). Creative Music Making (Four Simple Steps to Cultivating the Inner Musician), (New York/London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Books, Inc.)
2 Globokar, Vinko, (1970). Reacting (Musique en Jeu), trans. by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen.
3 Wagner, Alan D. (2005). A Bio-Bibliography of Composer Warren Benson. (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press), p. 63. The original Nexus was John Wyre, Bob Becker, Bill Cahn and the author, but we had yet to choose our name.
4 May 21, 1971. Soon after the Kilbourn Hall concert, Russell Hartenberger (b.1944) and Michael Craden (1941-1982) had become members.
5 I first encountered “Globokar’s Rule” in Japan in 1970 when we improvised a duet based on an idea by Lukas Foss. We wore hospital wristbands with various symbols that told us when and how to play. I used a Javanese cowbell, a marimba mallet and a contra-bass bow, Vinko, his trombone. I hit and bowed he cowbell for a while and was pretty much finished. Vinko played sounds I’d never imagined and then dismantled his trombone; playing the mouthpiece and tubing. He then took my bow and as I sat spellbound, he bowed everything “bowable”. When the piece finally ended, Vinko had performed a veritable trombone concerto.
6 From Latin, from Aleator, ‘dice player’, from alea ‘die’, (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, (1998)
7 This is a composite definition drawn from The Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia and The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)
8 Globokar, Vinko, (1970).
9 Toru Takemitsu and Sound Space Ark, Japan Society, New York City, July 5-8, 1988. The first ‘Bravos’ of these concerts occurred after a performance by Yamaguchi of Takemitsu’s “Munari by Munari”(1961). Essentially an improvisation directed by a book of colored pages, through-cut with geometric designs. The colors and designs determined the player’s response.
Copyright © 2009, Robin Engelman
Paradise Below Zero, Winter Camping in Killarny Provincial Park.
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the hot, humid arm pits of North America’s east coast. As I write, I’m in Toronto, in the midst of a polar vortex and it’s cold and dry. When the dark months of Canadian winters arrive, I always think of Calvin Rustrum (1895 –1982), an American writer who championed our northern wilderness and its preservation.[1.]
Rustrum, who learned how to write by reading books, wrote with passion and clarity about the rigors and rewards of wilderness living. The New Way of the Wilderness (1958), The Wilderness Cabin (1961) and Paradise Below Zero (1968) inspired John Wyre and me, both relative newcomers to Canada, to plan a winter camping trip in the far north.
I sought advice from a forest ranger who had finished his tour of duty in the Canadian wilderness and was now ensconced behind a desk. I told him John and I envisioned camping for a week or two near the southern tip of Hudson’s Bay.
The Ranger looked at me in utter disbelief. No public service training had prepared him for a shnook like me. His eyes told me just how clueless I was. He began reciting the dangers of winter camping 550 miles north of Toronto and quickly disabused me of our plan and suggested we move our venue further south to Killarney Park just 250 miles north of Toronto. This relocation would enhance our camping adventure by cutting night time temperatures in half to a tolerable Fahrenheit 40° below zero.[2.]
Calvin Rustrum in Winter garb, Paradise below zero.
Following Rustrum’s advice we purchased cold weather clothing: down filled parkas, pants, booties, mummy sleeping bags and scratchy wool longjohns. We had deer skin shooter’s mitts and canvas knee high boots with felt inserts, perfect for snow shoes and warmth. Our heavy utilitarian canvas tent was a rental whose entrance flaps were closed with buttons. A catalytic heater which threw off enough BTUs to heat a small room, was also rented. It would be lit with matches whose heads had been dipped in wax and stored in waterproof containers. We had sun goggles, toilet paper and a week of frozen meals in tin foil containers courtesy of my wife – our drinking water would be made by melting snow.
Our accoutrements in place, we drove north in mid February,1972. Our destination was the southern end of Lake George in Killarney Provincial Park. We arrived and pulled in next to a small wooden Park Service garage and John parked his Land Rover facing the county road. [3.] We put on our Himalayan rated parkas and filled the toboggan with all our gear. Immediately we encountered our first obstacle, a pile of snow, the residue of a plow that had cleaned the garage parking area.
The toboggan must have weighed a couple hundred pounds and we were trying to manhandle it over a bank of snow about 3 feet high, while wearing snow shoes. This was not the beginning I had envisioned. I fervently hoped no Park Rangers would appear to witness our struggles. Finally John and I made off towards the lake. Hauling our toboggan through dense forest was strenuous and we gave up our plan to camp lakeside. We stopped and agreed to pitch our tent where we stood.
Lake George was only about 100 yards away and we were anxious to get onto it. At this time of year we knew the lake would be safely frozen, besides which, we could see fresh ski plane tracks. We stepped out, leaving the forest for its glaring, sun lit open surface. Snowshoeing is ungainly for beginners. The muscles and tendons of neophytes are susceptible to mal de raquette, an inflamation that can be painful, even debilitating. John and I both lived in the country and had experience on snowshoes. In deep snow and large spaces, snowshoeing imparts an unique sense of freedom.
Lake George is neither the largest or smallest of Killarney’s lakes. Directly to the east is a small lake named after the Canadian wilderness painter and member of the iconic Group of Seven, A.Y. Jackson. Killarney topography includes large granite outcroppings, small mountains, deep forests and mile after mile of great canoeing on its numerous lakes. For city folk, places like Killarney can be awe inspiring, imparting a sense of smallness upon its human visitors that can be disconcerting, even discomfiting. Wilderness, even when managed by goverment, imposes a gravitas of its own.
One of Rustrum’s rules was to dress in layers and carefully monitor body temperature. The problem for winter campers is not in keeping warm, but getting too warm. Perspiration will freeze and kill. Thus, as we warmed up, we opened our parkas, eventually removing them all together. Still warm, we stripped down to our boots. Naked, we faced the warmth of a northern sun. The sound of shuffling snowshoes had ceased. Our breathing had slowed. We didn’t talk. We stood motionless in a kind of rapture, transfixed by Killarney’s vast silence. Too soon the sun began to set and the cold came, fast and penetrating.
Being too warm is especially critical at bedtime. To prevent this, we’d sleep nude except for a cap and down filled booties. All our clothes were tucked inside the sleeping bag. The catalytic heater made preparing for bed and dressing in the morning, bearable.
The first night in my sleeping bag I awoke, urgently needing to pee. In dread,I rehearsed all the moves I’d have to make to get outside. Wearing only my booties and cap, I unzipped the bag and crawled in blackness to the tent door and began unbuttoning the flaps. I realized I hadn’t enough time to enlarge the opening further. Careful not to pull our tent down, I scrambled outside, already colder than I’d ever been. So, this is how 40° below zero feels. I made it to the base of a tree and started to relieve myself. I was already shivering too much to control my aim and come morning I thought, John would find me frozen, attached to the tree by spindly bridges of urine.
With frantic, mincing toe taps, I hastened to the tent, but once inside I couldn’t button the flaps. My fingers were numb and useless. In my sleeping bag, it took five minutes for me to stop shaking. I’ve attempted to calculate just how long I had been exposd to the night air and my best guess is about two minutes. To this day I believe I’d had less then a minute left before succumbing to the cold.
That same night there was a rifle shot just outside our tent. Rustrum had warned us about this, but we were taken off guard none the less. At temperatures such as these, freezing sap expands and finally explodes, sounding much like a 22 rifle going off.
Birds may chirp and loons cry, but the unspeakably mournful song of wolves is beyond a human’s power to express. From an incalculable distance, their atavistic voices carried In the blackness of night over our frozen lake, recalling mysteries which silenced our conversations and gently took us back to the beginning of everything. Their sound and the crack of exploding sap were our nightly bedtime accompaniments.
As the end of our trip drew near, we decided to drive into Killarney for lunch. We put the catylitic heater under the Land Rover’s gear box while a ranger skinned a wolf in the garage. We timed our arrival perfectly. In the kitchen, a very large woman was bringing forth her latest batch of freshly baked butter tarts. I’ve eaten all over the world, but let me tell you, this was butter tart heaven. One might suggest that my week in a tent influenced my taste buds. They’d be wrong.
About two months later, I revisited Lake George with my wife, our young son and daughter and our Great Pyrenees dog Chibi.[4.] The days were warmer and longer. The snow was greatly diminished, but the lake was still frozen solid. We spent a night in the Killarney Inn. The photos below are from that visit.
My family on Lake George with our destination ahead.
Almost at the top with Lake George below. Our Great Pyrenees dog Chibi was having the day of his life. Our daughter after all, would make it.
[1.] Rutstrum died on February 5, 1982 in Osceola, Wisconsin. Four years before, in Chips from a Wilderness log Rutstrum wrote: “If you want to do something for me after I’m gone, live so as to not defile the precious earth”.
[2.] During the week I was gone, my wife recorded night time temperatures of 25° below zero F. on our farm 30 miles north of Toronto.
 Today, a modern park service visitor centre stands on the former site of this garage and pathways meander through what is now Lake George Campground. The incredible beauty of Killarney Park and specifically Lake George can be seen in a large park service photo gallery on http://www.ontarioparks.com
[4.] Chibi was named by my daughter after Chibiabos of Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha which she had memorized.
The musician; the harmony of nature personified. He teaches the birds to sing and the brooks to warble as they flow. “All the many sounds of nature borrow sweetness from his singing.”
Very dear to Hiawatha
Was the gentle Chibiabos.
For his gentleness he loved him,
And the magic of his singing.
Longfellow: Hiawatha, vi.
Posted by robinengelman on January 15, 2014 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques, Education, History
Tags: Calvin Rustrum, Killarney Provinvial Park, Longfellow, Paradise Below Zero., Snowshoeing, The New Way of the Wilderness, The Tale of Hiawatha, The Wilderness Cabin, Wolves