improvising at the Bonfire Reading Series
Theresa is a classically-trained flutist veered into free improvisation.
Years ago I heard a music professor and pianist agree that improvisers always have a plan for what they perform — otherwise, they wouldn't improvise. It would be too risky.
With most traditions of improvisation, this is true. But to go before a hushed crowd, knowing nothing about the music you will create for them — this is exactly the kind of performance I do these days.
Two days ago I did this as a solo musician at the Bonfire Reading Series featuring poets Rachel Nelson, Emily Carlson, and Chiwan Choi. After each poet read from their work, I improvised short musical interludes.
Before this I'd only improvised in front of a silent audience with other musicians. I find improvising with other musicians as natural as verbal dialogue. But to carry all the weight of that world-building yourself — the task of decorating all that silence, stretched across time in front of an audience — has remained intimidating. This night would also be my first time hearing each poem read.
Beyond nerves, what I remember of that night is listening to poetry like music, with an imagination and care I'd never given to a poetry reading before. What I remember is feeling — by halfway into each interlude — as if I were caught up in a wind, knowing exactly what to express about each poet's work, their voice, their vision — as if the music was leading me by the hand, and we were all just here for the ride.
It was an indescribable experience for me and others in the room, from what people shared with me afterwards. I think it has also something to do with a transformation of energy between language and sound, the shared meanings of the poems converging for the audience into musical interpretation.
But as I listen back to recordings of that night, it's hard not to wince over things my classical-flutist ears were trained to agonize over: intonation, sound quality, breaks in the sound, vibrato, the list is endless. Improvising is risky because all the concentration you'd normally put into controlling your technique and phrasing, you channel into something else.
But I tell myself what another musician told me: when it comes to performance, recordings only capture the facts of what happened — nothing about the energy of the moment. With improvised performance, recordings can't convey the weight of discovery in real time, by both performer and listener.
Together with the fact that I was nervous to improvise alone in front of a silent crowd — including the poets whose work I was forming a musical response to — helps me listen to these recordings with more compassion for myself, more joy that I got to share this with others at all. Free improvisation — it's risky.
from "Tar Baby Dreams of Home" by Rachel Nelson
I will never be made into anything else again. The dim shed where I was raised
still smells like me, my indelible path back is still marked with my hand. Black traces
that cannot be rinsed away from the bark. As the trees grow tall, the tar rises, as if to better see the way.
from "Why Misread a Cloud" by Emily Carlson (2022):
Walking through a dark room I sensed where to
step, adjusting the radio, it became clear, ash wasn't
a storm, blown over the sea, goodbye sea, goodbye
stars, why misread a cloud, that won't rain, that's
ash, of what
from "my name is wolf"by Chiwan Choi (2022)