Equals, Snapshots, Presence: ISIM – the International Society for Improvised Music

Equals, Snapshots, Presence: ISIM – the International Society for Improvised Music

Those of us who gravitate toward improvisational music do so because we enjoy relating to other human beings as equals.

Written By

Stephen Nachmanovitch

Ed Note: The upcoming conference/festival of the International Society for Improvised Music (ISIM) will take place December 3-6, 2009, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, hosted by Karlton Hester. We asked longtime ISIM participant Stephen Nachmanovitch to reflect on this one-of-a-kind gathering and how its approach to music-making offers a valuable model for social interaction.



I. Equals

Nearly four years ago, I got a call from Ed Sarath, founder of the improv program at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance, asking if I would give the keynote talk at an improvisation conference in Ann Arbor in December of 2006. I had no idea how thoroughly I was about to find myself swept away into an ongoing and nourishing community of musicians.

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians at the 2007 ISIM Conference in Chicago

Looking out at the faces of that first conference of the International Society for Improvised Music (ISIM), there were a few people whom I’d known for decades; others I’d known remotely but never gotten to meet face to face, and many people whom I ought to have known forever but hadn’t yet met. So here we were, having plowed and planted the fields of musical improvisation all these years, celebrating a sense of community, working and playing together. What was extraordinary was the intimacy of the mixture. There were jazz people, free-improv people, classical-improv people, people doing improv related to African, Asian, and other musics, noise, electroacoustic and computer music, and above all, kinds of music that don’t have names but that clearly bespeak distinct personalities and ideas. There was an open mingling of academics and free-range touring musicians, students, young musicians barely eking out an existence in their home towns. People did not congregate in separate interest sections: everyone was talking to each other, listening to each other’s work and connecting, without paying too much heed to the boundaries between the musical forms and the different life-paths they entail. I have attended both of the ISIM conferences/festivals that have subsequently taken place—Chicago (2007) and Denver (2008)—both in the first week of December. And I’m eager to attend this year’s conference in Santa Cruz, California.

Thomas Helton with the Michele Bangwen Dance Ensemble, Chicago 2007

The ISIM community weaves together multiple strands of musical history and perspectives, and points us well out into the trends of the 21st century. Some improv artists work with formats and templates devised in advance and within which they improvise. Others work entirely “free”—which means listening so intently and completely to one’s partners and audience, environment and feelings, that what comes out has the integrity and wholeness that we would expect of any music. Wherever on this continuum each musician plays, there is always this overarching atmosphere of listening, which somehow spills over from inside people’s musical practice to the way they interact with each other as human beings.

The atmosphere at these conferences is a vitally important antidote to the biz of contemporary avant-garde music, which like the biz of classical music and pop, is wrapped up in the star system. This democratic feeling partly comes from the good sense of the organizers—Ed Sarath working with Sarah Weaver, Kate Olson, and many others. But I think to a great extent it derives from the fact that those of us who gravitate toward improvisational music do so because we enjoy relating to other human beings as equals.

That is the core of the experience for me. That is the chief relevance of our musical practice (and other improvised art forms like theater and dance) for the world beyond art. Improvising brings us into a living model of social openness—a model of people interrelating to each other through the practice of listening—in the midst of a world in which people so often retreat behind the boundaries and tensions of academic, political, racial, cultural cubbyholes, and all the other prefabricated borders that divide us.


II. Snapshots

It would be impossible to list all the extraordinary musicians who have played and spoken at the three ISIM conferences that have taken place thus far (plus the New York concert-fundraiser in April of 2008), but I would like to offer some snapshots that have had a particular resonance for me. Inevitably, I’m doing an injustice to the dozens of participants I won’t have the room to mention here.

Roman Stolyar and Susan Allen
from the 2008 ISIM Conference in Denver

A ferment of people wandering around, encountering each other, going off to side rooms to jam….Salil Sachdev draws ecstatic virtuoso percussion from a metal salad bowl….Chicago’s AACM plays large-ensemble improv with such evident comfort and confidence after so many decades together, yet still sounds fresh and new….Susan Allen, the pioneering harpist from CalArts, traveled on the trans-Siberian railway, Googled “Siberia” and “musical improvisation,” and came up with the wonderful Roman Stolyar. Roman’s simultaneous playing of kazoo and prepared grand piano is one of many performances. It might have been trite or contrived, except that it works and is beautiful, in duet with Susan’s kayagum, a Korean zither rigged up with fishwire and a variety of everyday implements.

Marzen Kerbaj and Michael Zerang, 2007

Likewise Marzen Kabaj (who came to Chicago ’07 from Lebanon), plays the trumpet through a long vinyl tube with a ton of household objects dropped into the bell. It’s the kind of experiment that many noise musicians do, but his sense of timing, style, and panache (along with percussionist Michael Zerang) carries it to a mixture of comic/dramatic tension that leaves the audience breathless.

The Boulder Laptop Orchestra, at Denver ’08, carries that art form to a level of presence I had not previously seen or heard. Much new laptop music features a group of people sitting onstage with computers on card tables with random wires hanging out the back, looking at screens and typing.

The Boulder Laptop Orchestra, 2008

These performers sit with their laptops in formation, on the floor at beautiful stations, with some visual aesthetic qualities which included the audience as part of their circle. They project a feeling of an ensemble on stage, performing rather than twiddling controls. They are consciously playing for and with their audience, creating sounds that are balanced, vibrant, and challenging. And they are not afraid to be lyrical.


Through these and other performances, which have run the gamut from using traditional concert instruments/voices to ancient instruments, from acoustic to electric to software, and to creative hybrids of all of the above, improvising has become a practice for building bridges not only between cultures, but between multiple historical periods, multiple artistic media, and technologies from all ages.

Oliver Lake with the University of Michigan Creative Arts Orchestra, 2007

Large improv ensembles have gradually sprung up in the United States and around the world. We have long had soloists and chamber/jazz/rock bands, but it’s challenging to create and maintain an ongoing improv ensemble of some size and longevity. The AACM did it long ago, overcoming some tough barriers with no institutional support. But now that academic institutions are finally figuring out the importance of improv, there is some additional infrastructure. Ed Sarath pioneered it with the Creative Arts Orchestra at the University of Michigan. (There have been inspiring performances from them at ISIM festivals in collaboration with sax masters Steve Coleman in ’06 and Oliver Lake in ’07.) There are now several such ensembles around the country, including ones at CalArts, Naropa, and Texas State.


The physics of moving bodies: as I watch violinist India Cooke playing with bassist Joelle Léandre and violist LaDonna Smith, I feel their connection to the play of Newtonian forces as bodies and instruments fly around in space and time—a hallmark of improvised music. This is not to say that performers of composed music are not also profoundly tied into their physicality, but in improv the connection is front and center. As the bassist’s arm ricochets through the air with each stroke, we wonder (cliffhanger) how that stroke is going to land, how it will bounce and follow through into a one-of-a-kind sound. Sound and movement co-create each other, dance-like, along with the acoustics of that particular room, the attentional qualities of the audience, connected into context in a way that even beautiful and amazing performances of notated music seldom attain. Thus we become conscious, moment to moment, of being present at an event which can happen only once in the history of the universe. (Several months later, I’m in the car hearing whatever shuffles in next on the iPod—music from many worlds, but each recording contained within a nice, professional context. Then I hear this thwacking, breathing, harrumphing, string-and-vocal exuberance. It’s Joelle Léandre and India Cooke. As Blake said, exuberance is beauty.)

India Cooke and Joelle Léandre, 2008

Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Dresser’s swooping flights through the middle ways between acoustic and electric sound also seem like sports, in that physical movements bring in a sense of anticipation; you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Jane and Mark engage in this visible, muscular, floating dance. And in Jane’s case, her electronics are set to respond to her horn’s movement and acceleration. In this improv work, feeling, thinking, physicality, and intuition come together.

The pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, with his direct and simple way of talking about playing music as an act of joy, love, and gratitude, has shown that joy in real-time play with a diverse array of partners over the years. I particularly remember his duo with guitarist Dom Minasi, usually regarded as a fine straight-ahead jazz guy. When you see Minasi play you realize you are hearing the most imaginative, interesting explorations of the guitar interface, revealing surprising dimensions of virtuosity in the un-nameable and subtle realm of pure sound.

Vinny Golia, 2008

Phil James, a shakuhachi artist, plays beautifully from his awareness of johakyu (artistic gesture arising out of nothing, then scattering quickly) and simultaneously from his view of long, slow improvisation that develops over the decades of one’s life…. Robert Dick’s subtle mastery of timbral modulation…. Tom Buckner’s mercurial voice…. Ed Sarath is adept at weaving people together. Steve Coleman and Karlton Hester expound simultaneously in two parts of the building on the numeric and geometric mysticism inherent in the music of Coltrane. Longtime pioneers of the improv scene, like Nicole Mitchell, Ken Filiano, and Vinny Golia, find themselves in a variety of rotating partnerships with other artists and styles….Roscoe Mitchell (at Denver ’08) shows old photos and films of himself and his friends at happenings, in wild shirts, with a painter painting to his music which was made on a combination of traditional instruments and wild sculptural contraptions. The ’60s may seem dated now, but something new-but-like-that is coming again, and fast. The lines between artistic disciplines are dissolving again, as we summon up new ways to evoke a unitary experience of sensation and feeling.

Wojciech Konikiewicz from Poland (who looks like Che Guevara and dresses like a biker) has 150 of us in stitches describing his hours-long encounter with Homeland Security at the Detroit Airport, pawing through his funky homemade electronic music gear—the federal agent rereading ISIM’s letter of invitation and asking, yet again (as recounted in Wojciech’s slow, deadpan, heavily accented voice)—”What is ‘musical improvisation’?”

Mark Miller and Art Lande have improvised together in Boulder, Colorado, every week for 30 years. As they play and speak at the last couple of conferences, the quality of their friendship (perhaps the subtext of everything we are doing) is manifested. Music becomes a vehicle for friendship and friendship a vehicle for music. The same can be true of musical friendships that are fresh and instantaneous. In a corridor at Northwestern University, four of us—Karlton Hester from California, Stephanie Phillips from Texas, Glenn Smith from D.C., and myself from Virginia—play together for a half an hour, click, and decide to form a group which eventually comes to be called Sixth Sense. The band feels like a small way to realize the potential of ISIM to unite like-minded colleagues from far-flung places in collaborative music-making, a celebration of our pleasure in instant, intuitive connection.

Pauline Oliveros, 2007

Then there are examples of work that is half in and half out of cyberspace, by Pauline Oliveros, Sarah Weaver, Mark Dresser, and others—co-located performers working at continental distances with Internet2 connections. Sarah, whose hard work made all these conference/festivals happen, is organizing a co-located piece involving 20 bassists here and in the Middle East, trying to build an infrastructure through which musicians might eventually communicate across borders defined by war and political conflict.

The research presentations are delightfully free of the thick, obscure patois that often pervades academic discussions of the arts and humanities. (In some other gatherings, I have actually seen people read papers on improvisation, which is a self-cancelling activity!). Artist-scholars like David Borgo, Bennett Reimer, and David Rothenberg find ways to enrich the study of improv from by adding the perspectives of psychology, animal ethology, cybernetics, and other fields. As in the musical partnerships, scholars feel free to address people as equals, without setting up terminology or expertise as a sign of professional identity.

Karlton Hester, Ed Sarath, and India Cooke in Panel Discussion, 2008

Many presenters touch on the delicate issues of teaching improv and using improv to deepen the curriculum from the early grades through university. Among them are Maud Hickey from Chicago, Anne-Liss Poll and Anto Pett from Estonia, and Janne Murto from Finland. Across the diversity of their methods, they all seemed to share my experience that what I’m teaching is empty of inherent existence, because I’m not trying to teach people to play the music I play, but to release the musical and other patterned activity that arises from their own interactions and relationships.

LaDonna Smith

Pioneers like the Shaking Ray Levi Society in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and LaDonna Smith in Birmingham, Alabama, are combining far-out sounds with down-to-earth compassionate work with community groups, with children, with disabled people, veterans, people as far as possible from the art world and from the self-conscious avant-garde.

One pattern much in evidence is the fluid interface or continuum between improv and composition. A number of participants, like Walter Thompson and Pauline Oliveros, have contributed templates and methods for semi-structured large-group improv. All music vibrates on that continuum, and on the related continuums between freedom and form, individual personality and cultural heritage. Listening to each other’s methods and practices, no one seems to need to take a stand that x is better or more important than y.


III. Presence

Each encounter with fellow improvisers leads not only to new partnerships and new sound worlds, but to a treasure trove of research. A friend will tell me about the artists who have influenced her work, many of the names unfamiliar. After exploring their recordings, I realize that I should have known about these people long ago. One of the interesting things about living in a vast country where the arts are so vibrant and so poorly supported is that in my late 50s I keep making new friends and discovering whole new branches of music and allied arts that I had no idea existed. There is such a ferment of artistic exploration today, almost entirely below the radar of the mass media and the high-culture media.

To me, these encounters bring forward the element of music that is even more important than sound: people, interacting and present for each other. At each moment we are there to witness an event which has never taken place before and will never take place again. Of course this is true of everything in life, but improv makes the game exquisitely clear. The key to creativity, the algorithm for improvisation, is other human beings. As we realize this in our day to day practice, our art becomes, in George Lewis’s words, a power stronger than itself.




Stephen Nachmanovitch
Photo by Gato Urbanski

Stephen Nachmanovitch performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist, and at the intersections of music, dance, theater, and multimedia arts. He is the author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art and has published articles in a variety of fields since 1966. In addition, he has created computer software including The World Music Menu and Visual Music Tone Painter. He lives with his wife and two sons in Charlottesville, Virginia.