Reeling the Out Sound In

What the Bay Area's world-class improvisational music scene is doing to put more butts in the seats

On any given night in art houses throughout the city, you'll find some of the 21st century's most dynamic musicians exploring unheard-of sound combinations that bend ears and spin heads. Drawing stylistic elements from jazz, classical, and countless other familiar genres, their innovations imply an all-music tradition with a global reach. But the turnout for such gigs is typically dismal. World-class improviser/composers such as Fred Frith, Rova Saxophone Quartet, and Pamela Z have encountered more receptive audiences in Europe, Japan, Russia, even Chile -- i.e., anywhere but here -- which is a curious phenomenon, given the Bay Area's reputation for attracting outsider artists.

The problem seems to stem from a lack of definition. Like most everything else in the United States, musical performance is a commodity that needs a hook for a soft sell, a simple catchphrase easily recognized by concertgoers. But even the scene's top players disagree on a name for their efforts.

Saxophonist Dan Plonsey sees his work as grounded in a kind of fantastical geography. He calls it "Music of El Cerrito" to stress its function as "building and maintaining community," but there's an unusual caveat: His El Cerrito "is an imaginary city, in the great tradition of magic and mystic cities."

Vocalist Pamela Z: "If they already know, you can use 
whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no 
term that explains the work."
Lori Eanes
Vocalist Pamela Z: "If they already know, you can use whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no term that explains the work."

Pianist Matthew Goodheart believes that "defining music by its cultural function" is a better way to go. Thus: "Concert Music." He explains, "It's music you're supposed to sit in your seat and listen to, just like Beethoven." While he says, "I think that's most accurate," he admits "it doesn't do crap to promote my music to a target audience." To pay the rent, he gives piano lessons and is the band director at a local church.

"Spontaneous Composition" is a fairly popular, relatively precise term, favored by drummer Garth Powell: "The idea being that any pre-defined style could occur within the context of the concert, but the structure initially is either nonexistent, or it is very loose and can adapt to swift changes that are demanded in the moment."

Bassist Damon Smith holds fast to the ubiquitous "Creative Music" moniker with the qualifier that the "music needs the creativity of the musician, as opposed to just the composer's composition, to exist."

Summing up this identity crisis, vocalist Pamela Z says, "Any term is problematic for people who don't already know what you're talking about. If they already know, you can use whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no term that explains the work -- and the breadth of what's included in the field -- thoroughly enough not to still require a lot of explaining."

Rova:Arts, the nonprofit backbone of Rova Sax Quartet, is attempting the ambitious task of bridging this gulf. Throughout the year the organization will be hosting "Improv:21," a series of teach-ins or "informances," as it likes to call them, "on the art and practice of improvisation," which is arguably the cornerstone of the scene's wide-ranging character.

So there they were: a couple of laid-back middle-aged guys sitting at a table onstage, playing CDs, and talking about how the music was made. At first glance, this might have seemed like any other Q&A forum one would find on, say, VHI or PBS. But the ideas presented at "Improv:21"'s debut installment were anything but mundane.

The event took place in late January on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the city. Despite the unseasonably sweet weather, 50 or so devoted music fans and musicians filed into a dark Dance Mission Theater to listen to Fred Frith expound on his musicmaking process with KPFA radio host Derk Richardson. Frith was an excellent choice for this inaugural production. Not only is he internationally renowned for his pioneering prog-rock inventions of the '70s and early '80s in U.K. cult bands Henry Cow and Art Bears, but also over the past three decades he has been at the forefront of the creative improv movement, working with fellow innovators like Rova and John Zorn, performing one-of-a-kind solo-guitar gigs all over the planet, recording soundtracks for award-winning indie films such as Rivers and Tides, and currently, under the title of distinguished visiting professor of composition, co-directing Mills College's 20-plus-member Contemporary Performance Ensemble. Given Frith's far-reaching expertise, his viewpoint on the often thorny topic of "organizing improvised music for large ensembles" would have to be taken seriously.

He explained how he employs various strategies like conducting and cue cards or graphic scores (e.g., photographs to elicit a certain mood in the players) to steer the massive sound of big-band improv. Such devices, commonly used by forward-pushing combos like Rova and Zorn's Cobra, enable a group leader to suggest (if not 100 percent dictate) the trajectory of a large-scale piece of music according to his intuitive feel for what needs to happen in the moment. Being open to intuition -- Frith described this as "empty, receptive to all you've ever been" -- is, in a nutshell, the art of the improviser. He elaborated on this point when he said that a performer needs to be constantly tuned in to the questions: "What just happened? What's gonna happen next?"

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