What's next? on flight & collaborative sound-making
This post bounces off an essay I wrote in January, "Art as Abundance and Social Media."
Being an improviser for me means cultivating language that can bend, flow, break, & build with the languages others develop through their art form.
I see my flute-playing as having gone through a kind of death over the past two years and emerging in a phase of formlessness, lawlessness, for which the community around free improvisation ended up being home. Improvising with this community, I began to find confidence in my sound and textures on my instruments I would’ve never tried otherwise — a life in classical music left me constantly seeking permission for who I was allowed to be when I held a flute.
Improvising freely with others pushed me past the limits and isolation I was experiencing as a flutist up to that point. In growing as an improviser, I am searching for a new language of being a musician in my body.
Improvised on alto flute with electronics by Adam Kantz in February 2023.
"I went home and thought about the value of margins... how ideas move from the shadows and the fringes into the center and how much the center likes to forget or ignore those origins — or just how those in the floodlights can't see what's in the shadows. The margins are also where authority wanes and orthodoxies weaken."
~ Rebecca Solnit, from Recollections of my Nonexistence
My early life as a musician was plagued with the anxiety, what if I'm not good enough? I loved making music but that seemed inextricable from Having a Music Career, which necessitated being "good enough." Without fully resolving this anxiety, I kept playing through years of lessons, youth orchestra, honor bands, concerto competitions, and college auditions — both in spite and because of a stable upbringing. I knew stability well enough to crave something more, a privilege and a risk. So I went to college for music, albeit in a program that let me study history too ("something stable just in case" to 18-year-old me).
Throughout college I journaled and the journaling revolved around the same anxiety: "What if all this practicing is a waste? What if I give so many hours, months, years of my life and I still never make it? Won't people pity or laugh at me? I'm taking out so much in loans... My parents worked so hard..."
I also started to collaborate with local artists and communities, briefly tasting the possibility of building a career around this kind of collaborative music-making. Then I graduated into the pandemic with all my gigs cancelled.
After college I worked in retail and kept coming up with solo recording projects and posting them on my blog or social media. Anything to share, anything to be seen still making music, even if it was just in my room — I could blame the pandemic for having no gigs.
But in 2021 as other freelance musicians got busy again, I faced the reality that I didn't have the network they'd built for years after graduating. Instead I kept up my own projects, wrote more, kept questioning what kind of future I had in music, and kept the retail job that kept me fed and housed.
I still work that job. But as a musician, so much has changed in how I sound that I can only attribute to three years of searching — constantly losing and finding why I've still wanted to be a musician (usually landing in some gesture towards transcendence) when by most standards I'm not "making it" — three years of that, then suddenly finding a community and a space that exploded the walls of what "being a musician" meant.
In a creative space, unconditional belonging can stifle the motivation to grow, or it can be the single condition that frees you to explore uncharted territory with confidence — trusting it's okay to make mistakes, okay to fall completely flat, okay to sound anything but "good."
As I wrote in "Art as Abundance and Social Media," my formative years in music were defined by scarcity rather than abundance. I spent over a decade training to be a very specific type of hirable musician. Jobs for this kind of musician are scarce across the country. Gigs for this kind of musician are scarce across the city. But since classical flute was the doorway to all my training and visibility in music, it seemed like the only kind of musician I could be.
Through the community around experimental arts and free improvisation, I've learned to stop asking for permission — when to perform, who to perform for, where to play, what to play, how to sound, why to sound. I became convinced that scarcity is a tool for cultural elites to control and commodify what is in reality abundant — what should be created, experienced, and shared by everyone: art and creative expression more broadly. (Reading this helped convince me.)
My playing changed too, radically. Surrounded by people from jazz, rock, punk, and noise backgrounds, I started to experiment freely with what I could do with my instruments. For months, I played only to improvise with others. Ephemerality and non-professionalization came to define my musical practice. So did expansiveness, compassion, trust.
Improvised in March 2023 with Drew Collins (bass) and Ross Antonich (drums). Starting ~0:55 is one of my favorite recorded moments of improv I've ever done.
When I met this community, I'd been internally drained of motivation and inspiration for solo projects. By myself I'd lost access to the transcendence that kept me a musician for over a decade. Community gave me a reason to keep making any music at all. It gave me visibility, leading to opportunities to record and perform — my own version of a performance career, with the caveat that much of this work is unpaid, which is sustainable because I make enough otherwise.
In terms of income, I am not a professional musician. And this stopped mattering to me. I lost faith in the music industry, the gig economy, stopped hoping their obsession with scarcity meant there could ever be a place for me. But in terms of how much I've been able to explore, express, and connect through music, I feel grateful, even giddy, and hopeful that (for the foreseeable future) I'll continue to do what I've been doing.
Improvisation became the vehicle for the kind of collaborative, multidisciplinary practice I hoped for in college. For me being an improviser means, "Through my instrument I have a language that can bend, flow, break, build with the language you've developed through your art form." Through this approach I've been able to meet and collaborate with people in ways I never imagined for myself. Like last month at a poetry reading. Or with electronic musician BusCrates in nightlife scenes:
One paradox of "free" improvisation is, you constantly run into your own limits. In allowing your subconscious to take control — in trusting the stories building inside you across years of living, while reaching for (or believing you're telling) a new story — there's as much possibility of telling the same story again and again — defaulting to the same textures, patterns, sequences, harmonies, inflections — as there is of pushing past your limits.
Running into these limits reminds me why I've loved playing composed music — bringing to life someone else's understanding of sound — reliably transcending your sense of self. On the other hand, subconsciously rushing past those limits keeps me riveted to improv because of how unexpected, thrilling, and revelatory those moments are — letting your sense of self transcend what it was.
One of those moments is recorded in the video below around 3:25. I started singing and playing in short, fast bursts whereas before, I'd only known to use this technique in sustained gestures. I've discovered multiphonics, whistle tones, and other textures this way. (Though in this recording, the major limit I push past is actually singing in public — this was my first time ever doing so!)
Improvised with Morgan Dow (bass) and Thomas Scheurich (violin) on 3/3/2023.
When I hear recordings of myself improvising, I tend to pinpoint countless "flaws" — a symptom of perfectionism and a habit of someone new to live, experimental music. Beyond these flaws I hear a freedom, a peace, and a confidence in my sound that I never possessed as a student. Much older recordings of me are wracked with tension, with hyper-fixation over intonation leading to poor intonation, with anxiety about rhythm leading to lack of rhythm — all of it screaming, "I'm not good enough."
Playing with experimental, improvisatory musicians has brought me into a space where I can access the sense of safety necessary for me, as someone relatively new to the scene, to freely improvise. Belonging is unconditional — which allows for static, but can also be the single condition for someone to explore uncharted territory with confidence — that it's okay to make mistakes, okay to fall completely flat, okay to sound anything but "good."
Some exploration with solo improv. Most interesting part is towards the end.
In spite of all this, I know I'll continue to question and experience slow spells in my life as a musician. My most recent slow spell — March, essentially — gave me the space to develop a longer, deeper project that reflects on what improvisation means to me on various spiritual, creative, embodied levels. This project is turning into a solo set of improvisation, electronics, and spoken word. I'll be performing a run-through here in Pittsburgh on April 19th, then taking it to the Davis Cherry Blossom Festival in California on April 23rd.
If this post is the nuts-and-bolts of how I've become an improviser, this show is the spirit and breath of who I've become as an artist. I'm thrilled to share it.
To attend the performance in Pittsburgh, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To end, here's another one of my absolute favorite recordings of improv with electronics by Adam Kantz.