Born free, the orchestra that makes up magic as they go along

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra
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But you

Wi denty thrapple

Can ye wheeple

Nocturnes frae a rone-pipe flute?

So asks the late Edwin Morgan, in his translation from the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. And in its latest recording, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra responds to his cryptic challenge, though on instrumental forces rather more substantial than a rone pipe, and wheepling’s not the least of it.

The new album’s enigmatic-sounding title, Schweben – Ay, but can ye? refers to the two major points of inspiration for the orchestra’s guest composer, double bassist Barry Guy’s monumental exercise in (relatively) free improvisation, Morgan’s rhetorical translation from the Mayakovsky poem, Ay, but can ye? and a painting by Kandinsky, Schweben, which means “floating”. The album will be launched at the end of this month during the fifth GIO Fest, the orchestra’s annual celebration of free improvisation at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, and also marks the tenth anniversary of the band, lauded by Radio 3 as “one of the world’s best large improvising ensembles”.

The 47-minute piece, which swells from tentative flutings to a near-symphonic massiveness, is bookended by a frail-sounding Morgan, recorded before his death in 2010, firstly reading his translation, lastly discussing Mayakovsky and his influence on his own work. The Kandinsky painting becomes the “architecture” of Guy’s composition, with the “score” effectively what Guy describes as a “control graphic”, built around Kandinsky’s imagery.

The 22 musicians involved include such GIO core members as guitarist George Burt and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, as well as names well known about the broader jazz scene and beyond – reedsman John Burgess, drummer Stuart brown, harpist Catriona McKay – and Guy’s wife, Maya Homburger, a baroque violinist.

Guy “conducts” by holding up cards which take the musicians in and out of the structure – a football referee comes to mind, while certain players, who add a further unpredictability to the music’s evolution, are known as “floaters”, reflecting Kandinsky’s title.

Welcome to the sometimes bewildering world of free improvisation. It’s best appreciated in live performance, says one of GIO’s founder members, Raymond MacDonald, who is also professor of psychology and music improvisation at Edinburgh University, and who is anticipating the GIO Fest with considerable excitement. “Particularly when you experience it live, the drama of the unfolding improvisation can make it very accessible. You have, say, 15 musicians walking on stage and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

To the uninitiated, such an exercise can sound like spectacular sonic mayhem. MacDonald is keen to demystify it, particularly through the forthcoming festival, which features some giants of the international free-improv scene, with whom the Glasgow orchestra has developed close collaborative links – Evan Parker, for example, who’ll be duetting with another distinguished guest, trombonist George Lewis. Other guests include vocalist Maggie Nicols, the Shetland Improvisers orchestra, the Alex von Schlippenbach Trio and a new commission from Jim O’Rourke – better known as a musician with the leftfield rock band Sonic Youth (his “score” is written on a deck of Japanese playing cards).

There will be further settings of Morgan poems, read by actor Tam Dean Burn in a new piece by George Burt, Three Envelopes for Edwin, plus Sonic Bothy, a project for players with special needs run by bassist Una McGlone.

MacDonald describes the ten years of the orchestra’s existence as “a really exciting journey for us”. But also, he adds, the decade “has seen a considerable shift in attitudes to free improvisation. When we started up, talking about what we did felt a little like trying to explain some kind of anti-social activity,” he laughs.

“Of course, there is still a lot of discussion round the aesthetics of improvisation, but I think the landscape of contemporary music has changed. Free improvisation is no longer something that has to be justified.”

• Schweben is on the Maya label. GIO Fest V runs from 29 November until 1 December at the CCA, Glasgow. For further information, see