Collective Improvisation

This is the transcript of a speech I gave two days ago at the album launch of a superb bowed-string impro collective in Melbourne. I abbreviated the speech (removing references to my own experience), and extemporised on the topic (hey, it was an impro gig), but, for the record, this is the speech I prepared. Thanks for asking me Ernie!

“Zephyrs of influence weave their way throughout these pieces,
lending familiarity and freshness”
Perry Holt – PBS “In The Quiet”

“The music on this CD reveals the magical power of
collective improvisation at work.”
– Le Tuan Hung, Sonic Gallery

Wonderful reviews for a wonderful CD: Bowlines: Circling Strangers

Why am I [Anne Norman] launching this Album of improvised string music? Perhaps because I too enjoy group improvisation, and perhaps because Ernie Gruner recently joined me in Darwin to take part in Tunnel Number Five: festival of underground music. There, Ernie performed in an evening of improvised string music with violinist Anja Tait and violist Netanela Mizrahi. On other evenings, he also improvised with West Papuan singer Henk Rumbewas; two Yolngu songmen Jason Gurruwiwi and Sebastian Burarrwanga; the cello, whirlies and bells of Sarah Hopkins; and with myself on shakuhachi.

The improvised music scene in Australia is alive and well, and Ernie Gruner and his colleagues here today are a big part of it.

Bowlines was formed by Ernie to specifically explore improvised music for bowed string players. Bowlines functions as an improvising collective with two sets of musicians. The line-up featured tonight is:
Jenny Thomas – viola; Heather Stewart – violin; Ernie Gruner – violin/viola.
The other line-up is: Helen Mountfort – cello; Hope Csutoros – violin; with Ernie.

These musicians are amongst the royalty of creative string players here in Melbourne.

So, what is “collective improvisation”
and how does it work?

Well, one may as well ask, “What is music?” and Where does it come from?

For improvising musos such as the members of Bowlines, they slip with ease into a place deep within where music comes forth. They are drawing on years of training in repertoire and technique, and on diverse performance and listening experience; going with the flow, trusting that they have the tools to deliver, to create, to explore, listen and respond.

For classical music students educated in the pervasive AMEB system—the Australian Music Examinations Board—collective free-form impro may be a curious, and possibly, frightening idea.

Classical musos in this country, and I am one of them, are generally taught a fixed lexicon of revered compositions by published composers. Rather than learning the art of fleshing out and ornamenting a figured bass (Baroque lingo for a bass-line with chord chart), an AMEB piano student learning Bach is given a page of precise dots on paper, and any deviation from said score is considered a “mistake”. These so-called Baroque “editions” are type-set in fixed metres with clear indicators of tempo and dynamics. This was not how music was taught to J.S. Bach or his students. And it makes one wonder where the role for the creative performing “musician” has gone? Are we merely automatons pumping out the notes like a MIDI program?

Just as the advent of samplers, digital recordings and YouTube have changed the way music is consumed, disseminated and studied, the advent of the printing press in Europe (many centuries after the Chinese) heralded in a new era of “fixed” compositions. This has lead to a culture where students, rather than listening to musical masters extemporising on a theme, now learn from a score as notated by a diligent disciple who captured for eternity a particular moment in time. A very useful tool, but not the core of music-making or expression.

In Japan, I studied 3 lineages of shakuhachi music, and was lucky enough to attend many concerts by Living National Treasures (all of whom are now dead). I discovered that tone-colour is much easier to attempt to capture in a tablature system as opposed to a pitch-based notation system, but nothing beats using your ears within an oral / aural tradition. I was able to observe performance differences between guilds and individual players when playing a piece of the same title. I was also able to compare performances by an individual master on different occasions and observe changes in ornamentation, and memory lapses that lead to abbreviations or deviations that were quite pleasing.

I now perform in schools across Australia on shakuhachi, also incorporating story telling. I have rewritten several traditional Japanese folk tales, and have left them open ended, asking my audience to decide what happens next. Inevitably, some kid puts their hand up and says “But how does it really end?” This is a great question, as it leads to a discussion about the flexible nature of story-telling—before the days of books.

Of course, Ernie knows the creatively fluid and magical role of stories very well from his long association with Playback Theatre, and I suspect that though Playback, Ernie’s explorations in collaborative music improvisation really took flight.

For some improvising music ensembles, there may be an element of pre-agreed framework: a mode or style or melodic fragment or a thematic intent. I asked Ernie whether Bowlines uses any pre-agreed elements to inform their musical gestures and interweavings. And the word he used was “Provocations.” He said, “We may use words or phrases such as Spiral; Gypsy; pizzicato; fly on the wall; 12321; lullaby; “a dark and stormy night”; or we might ask the audience for a suggested phrase. Our music springs from these provocations.”

Tonight we are privileged to join Ernie, Heather and Jenny as they bring forth music in real time. Heather is only just back from Paris, and I believe, rather than rehearsing, they  spent yesterday erecting a yurt in Jenny’s back garden. An unconventional but effective activity for building ensemble rapport and provocation.

And a quote from the CD I prematurely launched [across the room] a little while ago …

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do
than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

[Our world is straying from the printed word (by sanctioned publishers) to the oft-reposted facebook meme… The CD liner-notes credit this literary “quote” to Mark Twain—however, one internet article tells me he never wrote it… who knows? But it’s a good one.]

Anne Norman  — guest artist and Emcee at the Bowlines: Circling Strangers Album LAUNCH: Jan 3, 2017, 7pm, Northcote Uniting Church,
251 High St, Northcote, (Melbourne), Vic. Australia.


About anne norman

musician, shakuhachi player, author, poet, tea lover...
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3 Responses to Collective Improvisation

  1. This morning I am feeling the mystery of “what comes next?” in a general way. How will existence show up in my life around the next corner, in the next moment? Your speech deepens this sense in me. It is the way I savor living: life as improv. Thank you, and I wish I could be there in the tunnels, caves, factory halls and classrooms where you tap into your own personal flavor of magic.

    warm regards,


    ps – I am greatly enjoying the recording you sent me!


  2. anne norman says:

    Hey, nice to hear from you tomas. May your 2017 be filled with many fun corners and delightful unfoldings of the mysteries of existence. Glad you like the music. How’s the weather in Morocco?


  3. Beautifully written Anne.

    Love, Dor and Pete


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