Susan Wolf on improvisational music
Some of the most fun I had while working at the Pueblo City-County Library District involved making large volumes of strange noise! It was during this time that I got to work with and truly meet Susan Wolf.
Cello player, business owner, and community programs organizer, Susan has a well developed ear for creative sonic play. She is also responsible for bringing some of the strangest and most delightful people into to the library and the Pueblo community. Armed with instrumentation, noisemakers, and confidence, we moved through sonic fields possibly described as 'beyond the melody.' <grin> Melodies do surface and then disappear just as quickly into the quantum foam of spontaneous collaboration. Her group PICO (Pueblo Improvisers Community Orchestra) encouraged me to join in, which was terrifying and wonderful. This week, I caught up with Susan, and she agreed to talk about improvised music. The following is our text-versation:
Hi Susan! I had a chance to participate in a couple of your improvisational musical events. Can you just describe what improvisational music is? How did this even start?
To be clear we aren’t talking about music that has some improvisation in it as does many music traditions and genres. What we are talking about is improvised music as a genre (aka free improvisation) – music that is completely improvised and does not follow a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic structure. A good visual equivalent would be abstract art.
In the mid-20th century, jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Tayler, Alber Ayler and others took improvisation so far that what they were doing could be considered a separate genre – free jazz. Around the same time classical music composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew were employing experimental methods, such as chance and graphic scores, to compose pieces that contained little or no standard music notation. Today, musicians performing free improvisation often come from either a jazz or classical background.
I highly recommend the book A Listener’s Guide to Improvisation by John Corbett as an introduction.
What has got you turned on about producing music and sounds like this?
I played the guitar since I was 6, and then started playing the cello in high school. I became increasingly interested in 20th century classical music especially graphic scores because I loved being able to make compositional decisions as the performer. Also, I had grown up around traditional jazz and became increasing interested in free jazz. In college, some of my classmates were performing completely improvised music and although I was very interested intellectually in what they were doing, it took me awhile to be able to really hear what they were doing and to understand it on an intuitive level.
I think this difficulty in making sense of improvised music is really common because we are taught to listen for melody, harmony and rhythm in music. When you take those elements away it takes time for our brains to find new patterns and meaning in what is left. I will say that it is well worth the effort!
Can you describe an "IT" moment you had performing? What made it like that?
I have those often, but find that it happens more easily when playing with people regularly. I lived in Pueblo, Colorado for 11 years and eventually found a great group of improvisers: Michael Cox, Bob Falesh, Adam Gazzola, Bret Hamilton, Bob Marsh, Rita Pando, Ryan Seward, Geoffrey Simons, and others. We called ourselves PICO (https://www.facebook.com/PuebloImprovisersCommunityOrchestra). The “it” moment comes for me when I can hear a collective understanding among the players, that we are all in the same moment together. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are convergent in our playing, but sometimes it does.
What do you think the future holds for improvisational music? Electronic? Virtual reality? Interactive in some new ways? Paint a picture if you can!
There is certainly the potential for performances to become more and more interactive. Bob Falesch created this impressive video program that reacts in real-time to audio input. It is very cool! For the first live realization, Bob Marsh created these beautiful instruments out of natural elements and audience members were invited to perform with them. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zR5kiMzwkI )
Another really cool project is Peev by Bhob Rainey. It is an app that runs in the background while you use your computer creating some beautiful evolving sounds. (https://bhobrainey.com/store/44)
Personally, I am very interested in simulcast performances in which musicians are in different geographical locations. I’m hoping to learn more about low latency streaming programs that make this possible. For the most part though, I don’t think technology is the most important factor in the future of improvised music, but rather deliberate, uninterrupted listening. Something that seems more and more of a challenge these days.
Thanks Susan! To those interested in seeing/hearing more about what Susan is currently up to , you can check out flownasus.net.