I’ve recently emerged from a rich period of work: stacking all the kinds of music on top of
each other in a mash of practice, performance, rehearsal, creation and improvisation. And driving. A lot of driving! It’s been really rewarding and very stimulating.
Most recently suddenlyLISTEN presented a trio of Helen Pridmore, Andrew Reed Miller and me in Halifax. This concert was one of three shows we offered to audiences and video cameras. And it reminded me how amazing it is to get to improvise with the same people for several performances in a row. This is where improvisation gets seriously fun!
But first: why Helen and Andrew? Well let’s start with Andrew. We grew up together in Sackville New Brunswick, both sons of Mt Allison profs. We were in the same kindergarten class, we have deduced, but our most formative time was high school when we were together constantly, riding skateboards, listening to music nobody had ever heard in Sackville before and expressing our rebellion in a pretty creative way. Skip ahead 40 years or so and we’ve come together again playing as a duo, and a duo plus one, in a project we call Stay Tuned. Throughout the pandemic we got together weekly to record videos, learn about and experiment with remote recording and basically give ourselves some outside stimulus! As soon as we could Andrew came to Halifax and we continued to play and dream about how to continue playing as a duo. And as a trio! Pretty early on Andrew started to create videos of us and others: Arthur Bull, Joel Cormier, Robin Streb, WL Altman, Derek Charke and this past week, Helen Pridmore.
Helen is also an old friend. I first met her when she was a new faculty member at Mt Allison (yes the same Mt Allison) and sang a memorable composition of WL Altman with Sympohony Nova Scotia. My mind was blown and she went on to sing mostly contemporary music around the world including John Cage in Carnegie Hall, and produce years of visionary Ok/Quoi Festivals in Sackville. Then she headed to Regina, where I got to perform with her in 2017, and finally to Saskatoon, where she now lives, free of academia and creating more than ever. While Helen was in NB she was the vocalist for Motion Ensemble, a long-running new music ensemble run by ---- Andrew Miller!
It was a no brainer that we get together to play as a trio.
What did we do for this project? Well, Helen came with some ideas. Ideas that she had hatched for a different project, the words of Samuel Beckett from a series of three novels Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnamable. She had a theatrical concept, but altered things in her head for the three of us.
So we made a suite of sections out of various excerpts of text, all of which referred to, or dealt with silence and waiting. Each on suggested a different character, and we talked quite a bit, even before playing, about what those characters were. The fun part of this project was that the concrete nature of the text led to the search for set musical ideas, so more than an improvisation we were working on a collective creation together. It sort of scratched some classical music itches, even as we were completely free to change our minds. Which we frequently did! At the same time Helen was very clear that just because she was dealing with this concrete text, it didn’t make her the soloist or lead voice. (Which I appreciate the challenge of) So she would often obscure or subvert the text so that it became just another voice in the mix. I loved the way she and we could make the words audible and musical in turn.
The beauty of multiple performances is that we the performers get a second chance to improve what we attempted the evening before. And a tour often means multiple chances! We took this situation seriously and talked at length after each performance about what worked and what didn’t, how we can make the work clearer, even while we are improvising. This is the most fun for me, it’s all the spontaneity of improvisation with the repeatability or organization of score driven music.
It's remarkable how musicians, (all artists really) are wired to constantly improve and push forward. Good enough just isn’t enough.
We worked at things like: stick with your material; and don’t use too much material; try to come up with sounds that are contrasting for each piece; keep listening to one another; be melodic in some spots, and/or textural in other spots; “lets all say the text here. And go back to instruments here”; “When we are sure we’re at the end of a section, lets catch eyes find a hard ending instead of a fade out ending”; allow time for the music to come to life, be patient!
Some of these prompts are specific to this piece, and others are universal to improvisation or to music making.
So this project was very inspiring, it combined three old friends in familiar surroundings, with specific goals, exercising all of our musical muscles together. What more do I want? Not much.
Thanks to those that came to the shows, keep your eye out for the video on Resonance New Music’s YouTube page and watch for the next iteration of this project!
As always, we thank the Canada Council for the Arts, Arts Nova Scotia, Halifax, and this time, the Saskatchewan Arts Board. We could not be doing this beautiful work without these sponsors.