Improvisation as play, mourning, solidarity
Almost singlehandedly, improvisation has kept my musical practice alive. A year ago I wrote this article about finding possibility through improvisation, and it's held true.
In continuing to create sound doodles — short recordings of improvised, layered tracks — I've expanded from flute to include piccolo, alto flute, even voice.
Each month I share the growing collection of sound doodles with people subscribed to my Patreon, a community that's become a vital source of motivation to create at least one a month.
To fuel this output, I've drawn inspiration from live concerts, harmonic/rhythmic ideas I want to build upon, how I'm feeling in the moment — anything that seems to hold potential for fuller exploration through this form.
A month ago, I found this recording I'd downloaded in 2018 for a research project based on my conversations with musicians & hearing folk music in Argentina:
To read more about this song & Mariana Carrizo's work, here's an article in Spanish.
In the first half of this excerpt, Mariana sings: "Yo soy hija de la luna / nacida del rayo el sol / hecha con muchas estrellas / mujer de mucho valor" which I translated to, "I am a daughter of the moon / born of sunlight / made of many stars / woman of great worth."
My rediscovery of this recording and its powerful lyrics converged with two events, global and personal: On a global scale, sociopolitical upheaval in response to the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran and the surge of the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement. On a personal scale, struggling with my first job in an arts non-profit while also working in food service, tutoring, managing my own creative projects, and coping with the mental and emotional ramifications of leaving my first relationship.
In short, I found the lyrics empowering across diverse experiences, and knew that for my next sound doodle I wanted to draw inspiration from Carrizo's music.
But a month passed and I didn't record anything (I approach sound doodles intuitively). Instead, I found a community of musicians who improvise freely of stylistic or disciplinary constraints.
In adding my sound to these jam sessions — translating improvisation from private to shared experience — I learned how improvisation becomes raw, experimental conversation. Once you add even one new voice and creative vision, the possibilities for dialogue grow exponentially, diverging & converging across a vast range of sonic worlds.
This recalls one of my favorite memories this summer: sitting with my 5-year-old nephew at the piano, playing notes in response to each other while my 3-year-old niece was hitting a toy drum in response to us. Playing like this opens a realm of free expression — there's no such thing as "good enough" — it's as simple as play, meeting other people through sound.
Still, I didn't have the inspiration to record anything until last week. One night, I was reading the news — which I sometimes avoid because of a compulsion to empathize deeply with the suffering being reported on, which has immobilized me with grief — and saw this article about the violence faced by girls pursuing education in Afghanistan.
Reading about these girls younger than me, who died working to realize their educational & professional ambitions, gave a harsh dose of perspective on my privilege. But beyond shame, I felt inspired by them not to allow my own obstacles — however intangible — to prevent me from continuing to hope, grow, and invest in my career.
So I decided to improvise this next piece as an act of mourning — but in mourning through music (which I see as a gesture towards the futility of art to fully hold space for death), also honoring the lives of these girls with these lyrics from Mariana Carrizo. I hoped to express a commitment to myself and these girls: that I'd take advantage of my privilege, the kind of education they dreamed of having, and keep moving forward professionally and creatively.
The next morning I sat down and improvised these tracks together. Here's a snippet from the middle. I'm singing under my breath, partly for creative reasons, partly because I'm still pretty shy about recording my voice, let alone while improvising, let alone in a nonnative language.
Art by Swoon / Caledonia Curry.
I'll share the full version next week with everyone subscribed to my Patreon.
To be honest, I'm not happy with the full version because it takes most of the piece to converge into some kind of rhythmic, harmonic agreement. But that's the nature of improvisation. It can be messy!
Maybe this piece is a stepping stone — like how its harmony comes from a sound doodle I improvised last December — and for a future project, I'll craft a song more intentionally built around themes of hope & liberation for women. For now, I chose to explore this idea through improvisation because of the expansiveness and openness to imperfection that it allows.
To close, here's a music video created recently by the Internationalist Commune as an expression of solidarity with the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement:
These days I've been thinking about music as an expression of solidarity — how its impact can seem fleeting and intangible. People attend concerts like these, inevitably forget most of the music — even if they relished every second — and then go home, without any change to the communities with whom solidarity was expressed.
But far from dismissing music as solidarity, I've been paying more attention to the embodied impact of concerts or videos like these — people coming together in physical or virtual spaces, dedicating their eyes & ears to the same music, even if through a screen — and how the music provides a reason to come together, creates community. And with community, as I learned at the Improvisation Lab, possibility grows.