Musical freedom at Glasgow Improvisers’ festival

Members of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra

However, he adds, free-improv, far from being some arcane and rarefied activity, represents an absolutely fundamental aspect of every human being’s development.

These are matters close to saxophonist, composer and academic MacDonald’s heart, not least as the orchestra holds its sixth annual festival of free improvisation and experimental music, GIOfest, at Glasgow’s CCA next Thursday to Saturday, and as MacDonald, currently Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at Edinburgh University’s Reid School of Music, prepares to take over as head of the school.

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GIOfest’s programme includes the premiere of a BBC Radio 3 commission, Parallel Moments Unbroken, which MacDonald has written and will perform with the renowned American pianist Marilyn Crispell and GIO. He and Crispell are about to release a duet album, Parallel Moments. “The piece explores the notion of parallel moments in music and life,” he explains. “What concerns a lot of improvising musicians is the notion of freedom. We talk in terms of ‘free’ music, ‘free’ improvisation, but in many respects we’re never completely free.

“Freedom is a relational concept. We’re working collectively and negotiating the music as a group, so you’ve got this idea of being free but at the same time never completely free, because there are group dynamics and responsibilities, especially for a large ensemble.”

The piece will be broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz Line-Up in the new year. In the meantime, Crispell and a long-established GIO collaborator, the inimitable singer, teacher and activist Maggie Nicols, will participate in a discussion forum on Women in Improvisation, chaired by trombonist Gail Brand.

Other GIO guests include the American percussionist, composer and electronic music exponent Gino Robair, and “maverick vibraphonist” Corey Mwamba and his quartet. Other events include a tribute to the late, free-improvising soprano saxophonist Lol Coxhill by filmmaker Helen Petts, and the launch of GIO’s latest CD, Artificial Life, a recording of the piece written for and performed with the orchestra by the trombonist George Lewis at last year’s GIOfest.

The festival includes many other concerts and sessions – not least improvising workshops for young children. GIO believes in catching ‘em young, upholding MacDonald’s dictum that, from a psychological point of view, free improvisation is a fundamental part of life. “We’re all musical, every human being, in biological and psychological terms, and that’s not some vague utopian idea. There’s been convincing research by a psychologist at Edinburgh University, Colwyn Trevarthen, which has shown that the earliest communication between parent and child is essentially musical – the cooing, and the babbling – and, very importantly, it’s improvisatory musical communication.

“So improvisation plays an absolutely fundamental role in the earliest and most important bonding relationship of our lives – that with our parents. Patterns of relating to each other and relating to the world are laid down in these early weeks and months and will influence us for the rest of our lives.

“In many respects, when we’re improvising musically, we’re taking the strategies we’ve learned in life and playing them out in an improvisatory context. In many respects it’s like life unfolding.”

Free-improv may not be the most listener-friendly music genre around, but that very unpredictability is part of its fascination and it is quintessentially a live art form, best savoured in the moment. “I appreciate that at certain points you may find the music austere or hard to find a way into,” concedes MacDonald, “but when you watch 30 musicians on stage negotiating not just the music but the social situation as well, there’s a real drama to it. When we do new compositions, we are putting ourselves in new situations as a group and trying to develop new ways of working – whether or not we succeed is for other people to judge.”