"It's kinda like noise"
Since the fall, I've gotten involved in a creative improvisation scene in Pittsburgh. For the first time since graduating into a pandemic, I've been regularly playing music with other humans.
But when talking about these jam sessions, I'd find myself saying they're "kinda like noise" — with respect for noise music, knowing its reputation — followed by a twinge of guilt for trivializing what has been incredibly profound for me.
What I've meant to say is, the kind of sound exploration that happens in creative improvisation isn't packaged for most audiences. And that's alright; it opens possibility for other kinds of listening, other ways of connecting through sound.
For me, improvisation is about responding to the moment in ways daily life doesn't afford. Working in food service, my daily interactions are succinct & transactional. As a classically-trained flutist, I've spent countless hours of my life practicing: the necessary but mundane work of cultivating a language through my instrument. Building new techniques on flute, alto flute, and shakuhachi, these hours of practice are far from over — by nature repetitive, predictable. Improvisation allows me to step outside this.
Responding to the moment, we often invent sounds with our instruments, identifying and pushing past the limits of expression we've placed on ourselves. As a necessity of this exploration, jam sessions are mistake-friendly — safe spaces to grow and explore, which are hard to find outside (even inside) music schools.
This kind of openness is rooted in comfort with dissonance — comfort with having conversations deep inside the sonic texture of that dissonance, becoming familiar with the discomfort of sounds that are actively discovering where they want to go.
It's a blurring of two worlds: sound as musical consonance, sound as noise of everyday life. Both are soundtracks to our living. Creative improvisation creates a community and language in the space between.
Ultimately, it's about community. Disillusioned from the freelance ambitions I held out of college, through this community I've been able to explore a creative identity that transcends not only the prescribed track for classically-trained flutists, but also the solo-recording & layering tracks I've done for two years. It weaves my sound into a larger body of language, a larger creative practice.
All this said, creative improvisation may seem useful for those making sound, not for listeners. But alongside listening for enjoyment or escape, there's listening for curiosity, as respect — even a kind of love — for the humans & artists in front of you.
With improvised music, this kind of listening means being able to sit in the dissonance of others' conversation: giving attention to how it evolves, grows and regresses, grows again differently. I take a similar approach working in food service, when I have the bandwidth: taking a sincere interest in every customer, regardless of their age, especially when their appearance falls outside what social & cultural conditioning has sculpted our attention to be most riveted to.
Likewise, our social & cultural conditioning has sculpted us to privilege certain kinds of sound as music, as worth listening to, while rejecting others as unworthy of attention. We all have a rather limited economy of attention, so there's nothing wrong with this distinction.
But for some of us, it's a source of growth, transcendence, and enrichment to unravel that instinct — to subvert it by creating spaces, communities, and experiences around these "other" kinds of sound.
In the thick of improvised musical conversations, often I observe long stretches of not necessarily dissonance, but sonic textures that are heavy, unsettled, even relentlessly so. There is something indescribable about the weight & texture of this sound — the sound of multiple humans, often strangers to each other, speaking the language of a collective grief we have all been carrying — in many ways escaping — across the years. And there is something indescribable when these sounds unexpectedly converge into moments of harmonic beauty.
That's when I remember improvisation can be powerfully cathartic, like the art we place on renowned stages and gallery walls: it gives voice — movement, color, light — to our darkest pains, desperate escapes, the unlooked-for fruition of our deepest hopes.
Improvising at the Open Improvisation Lab in November:
Improvising at the Open Improvisation Lab at Telephone on Dec. 5th, 2022
Improvising with Josh Sinton (alto flute), Emily Suzanne Shapiro (bass clarinet), & Jay Rauch (bassoon) at The Government Center on Dec. 15th, 2022
Improvising with Ari (piano) and Drew (bass) at Telephone in October:
All of these experiences have inspired me to take more risks in my own multi-track recorded improvisation: