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Make sure all the voices are heard: equality in improvised music

By Rick Jensen

Improvised music, or “improv” is exactly how it sounds, music made up on the spot. It isn’t a style or genre but is more an approach to music making. It has sub-genres and various groups who take more specific approaches (free jazz, electroacoustic improv, noise, lowercase…) Improv has links to minimalist composition, tape music, but the originators mostly came from a jazz discipline.

Jazz for modern audiences is largely misunderstood as cheesy background muzak (sic) when in fact its history is incredibly diverse and important to all forms of music. Where it is really important was to highlight virtuosity of musicianship and the idea of reinterpreting songs. Improvisation was an integral element for the jazz musician to rework a song and take solos into new territory.

Many improv musicians started in jazz, like London based saxophonist Rachel Musson.

‘I have found a massive positive difference since edging away from the jazz scene and into the improv scene. I’m absolutely sure that some of the difference is to do with my own internal voice, but I also like to think that it’s something to do with the level of listening demanded by improvising… that invites and develops a broad and relatively egalitarian community of performers and audiences.’

The originators of improvised music took the lead from the great artists who used improvisation to take their sound to new places. Improv formed as an approach in the late 60s where several groups of artists in Europe and the UK came together including: John Steven’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM in the UK, Peter Brotzmann, Schlippenbach from Germany, and Han Bennink from The Netherlands. In the USA the music was developing in tandem with both sides springing from the work of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, however the American artists tended to retain the jazz influence more than the Europeans.

Improvised music is about exploring sound, pushing instruments to do new things, working together as a group and taking a risk to make something spontaneously that just might not work. Sometimes there may be an idea to start the piece, maybe the choice of instruments or to do something specifically quiet or minimal. Women have always been involved in the music and have grown in numbers and prominence over the decades, but the majority of performers being released in the 60s and 70s were men and groups lead by men.

Vocalist and co-founder of Resonance FM Sharon Gal recollects: ‘I got involved with the “free improv” scene in the mid 90s. I was working with free improvisation as a way to compose and connect with others so it was more a method of real time composing rather than a style, and the nature of the music outcome depended on the mix of musicians.’

The sign of a good improviser is a person who listens, responds, leads when needed, shuts up when needed and works together with the other performers to create. This idea that all the voices should be heard in the music raises the question of whether they are heard off stage. Jazz was notoriously macho, the music industry is historically sexist. Improv is a form of music that is inherently about equality but is it truly equal? Improv is also incredibly uncommercial, meaning not many people can make a living doing it without another job – to be a serious improviser you need to be committed to the art of it.

Sharon continued, ‘At the time there were very few women involved either as musicians or in the audience. Maggie Nicols, [who was one of the earliest female improvisers in the UK and instrumental in building the scene up], was an inspiration not only for her own practice and performances, but by providing and hosting a space, The Gathering, to meet and play with other musicians. It was not a workshop, but a non-judgmental space to be and interact through creativity. Through her I was also introduced to the ideas and ethics of John Stevens: search and reflect/community music etc.’

John Stevens founded the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) and its various off shoots. SME was one of the first groups to come from the UK who were committed to improv and were the starting point for many performers.

Sharon said: ‘As a women player I felt we had to carve our space to make a place for ourselves and our perspective and aesthetics, to bring our different energy and ideas into this scene. My personal experience was mainly positive.

‘I collaborated with wonderful (male) musicians and did not feel that my gender was particularly an issue, but of course it was in the wider context.

‘There was an issue with the heavy drinking culture (I experienced it with male musicians getting drunk and becoming very unpleasant) and also about the female voice in particular.’

Sharon Gal

Many women in improvised music tended to be vocalists with the occasional violinist or flautist. This probably added to the belief that female improvisers were more on the side of playing delicately with “feminine” instruments. This is a slight misconception as some always broke those expectations like painter and performance artist Gina Southgate.

‘I’m such an outsider anyway as a non-musician performing with sound and visual ideas but in a playful way. I think I’ve been well accepted in the areas I’ve worked in, but they are usually with and among people who know me. I had some success in the old days scoring improvised music touring grants myself and for and with others on three occasions. I think any resentment I may have encountered may have been because I’m not a musician, not because I am a woman. The scene has certainly become less of a place for old men which it was when I started going to improv gigs 38 years ago. The London Musicans Collective (LMC) always had women around, but it was generally more experimental than the free jazz and improv scene.’

Writer and clarinet player Virginia Anderson (South Leicestershire Improvisers Ensemble), originally from California, has a different perspective. ‘For me it’s not been that I felt unequal in the actual improvisation. Decades ago, in a Californian group I performed and recorded with, my input was stepped on constantly. I couldn’t decide whether they just blatted over me because they thought I was a lesser being or because the three men in question were just bad improvisers. I now think it was pretty much the latter.

‘In the UK I’ve had mostly beautiful, sharing interactions in improvisation, particularly in the South Leicestershire Improvisers Ensemble and our trio, CHA… I don’t do as much improvising as I’d like, while the men hive off to loads of other groups. It’s like not being seen—or being invisible. Of course, it may be that I’m too lazy to be proactive, or that they do see me, and think I’m a bad improviser… I choose to interact and “converse”, and find the best improvisers of any gender do that as well.’

Jenni Roditi, vocalist and leader of The Improvisers Choir, an all vocal collective of mixed genders, reflects Virginia’s views on performing. ‘I prefer improvisation settings where you don’t have to fight to be heard. These do tend to be male dominated contexts. Having said that a good vocal caterwaul usually shuts people up. For me it’s not so much about soft versus loud – it’s more about space verses density.’

Jenni Roditi. Photo: Martin Delaney

Swedish vocalist Lindha Kallerdahl explains the way that women may connect more, or in a different way. ‘It has mostly been an inner struggle. When I started to play more with not only men I found myself more excepted by myself. As if I needed women to play with to like myself more. I grew up with an aim to sing free music and after 20 years I find myself more free if I play with people who are kind and also interested in the people they play with. In the beginning it was more a sport… who is the fastest… I guess we need to grow as persons before we can fly high. Playing with female artists is safe for me and I share things with them. But as I sing in that moment, I urge for music.’

This tendency for men to make more sound, often louder and denser, to use Jenni’s terms, is not always true but is a regular issue in improv. It’s a form of music where listening and responding, whether loud or quiet, is important. Often a rule might be employed that if you can’t hear everyone you are too loud, or, if it’s not needed don’t.

Polish saxophone player Matylda Gerber has performed in various countries and as one of the youngest contributors has a very modern view of performing with men in improv. She also veers towards the louder side of improv and proves that female improvisers aren’t all subtle and quiet.

‘I generally have a good experience while improvising with others. Most of the time people want to play and improvise with me, BECAUSE I’m woman – “Play with us, because we need some diversity”. Each time I’ve experienced a good improv set, I thought I was just super lucky and I also felt everyone else was surprised of the outcome. I’m pretty intense on sax, probably to silence the fear of not being accepted. However, this super luck stayed with me for such a long time I started to believe I’m capable of performing good improvisation.’

Matylda Gerber. Photo: Krzysztof Mokanek

Cellist and lecturer Alice Eldridge, who plays in Collectress, relates a similar experience. ‘I’ve had nothing but really positive experiences, especially from London and Northern scenes – been warmly welcomed into and by various establishments (Evan Parker, John Russell, Mopomoso, LIO), as well as the Manchester/Leeds scene and European/international groups. This includes invitations to comment (e.g. liner notes) as well as play and produce.

‘In some cases, I might even feel some positive bias – sometimes I wonder if I am invited because I am a woman (make up the numbers etc.) but this is really hard to tell. This can feel a bit patronising, but perhaps it is important to try and rise to the opportunity to counter negative bias in other cases, and provide role models.’

Iris Garrelfs, senior lecturer in sonic arts at Goldsmiths University, vocalist and composer, adds that there are many more prominent women in experimental music, particularly now. ‘There are different facets to consider. It’s been rather gutting how the female voice in improvisation has not gone down all that well early on, at least in the UK context. Female voice and laptop improvisation as in my case was also not quite the done thing. But yes, things have mellowed.’

Iris Garrelfs. Photo: Joseph Kohlmaier

Opportunities to perform exist and on equal terms with male artists. There does seem to be genuine attempts by some promoters to ensure equality at events because it is right but Virginia asks if there is some sexism still involved in this.

‘More often than not groups of male improvisers will include all shapes, sizes, ages and dress sense. More often than not the female improvisers invited to guest or join these groups are thin, stylish, young, and beautiful. Successful older, non-thin, non-stylish, non-pretty women are usually established and important (and were probably pretty when they were young). This is not to say that pretty performers are not good performers (they have to be good to continue!), but that there is a filter working that is not unlike the call for “girl singers” to dress up big bands. It’s almost surely unconscious on the part of the male improvisers, but it happens often enough that it should be considered. I’d imagine that most male improvisers would say that they connected on a personal level with the people they work with, but that doesn’t mean the connection isn’t entirely musical or even social. It’s something that has been discussed at length in feminist studies. In employment situations and other areas of life in which choices have to be made, men are less likely to be judged on their looks than women are.’

New Zealander Leila Adu has lived in various countries and travelled widely as a performer. ‘I have had no problem playing improvised music with men. I’ve found that fewer women seem to be in the scene, but that men have been supportive of my lovely UK sisters, such as Hannah Marshall and Alison Blunt (though they may have found otherwise, I’ve not talked to them about it in-depth, though I’m sure we’ve talked about the lack of women on the scene).

‘I do not think that the male musicians discriminate, in the UK, or in the other countries that I’ve played, such as NZ, Mexico and the US. I think it’s partly due to the commitment of improvisers to progressive ideas and politics. But I strongly believe that bookers, journalists, magazines and labels discriminate. It really seems that we have less gravitas for them. It is in the documentation that we are invisible. Not when we are present on stage.

‘Like punk, improv is so DIY that it’s one of the rare areas that it doesn’t suck to be a woman music maker. Again, I’m talking about the creation agents and not the dissemination agents. I’ve definitely seen a whole book of a scene I was in for many years list everyone but me. No time for sour grapes when there’s wine to drink and music to be made! I spent over a year last year asking for women and POC and LGBTQ+ people to be put on shows with me (no, one isn’t enough!) and I only shared these people’s work and stories on social media. Then one of my white cis male buddies put out a great album and I did a plug. No rules!’

The focus of this piece is around women in the UK and Europe but it is important to compare the experiences further afield and see whether women in improvised music have similar experiences across the globe. Does the scene hold the same values and attitudes wherever it is?

American artist Bonnie Kane has been performing and releasing music since the early 1980s and toured widely with a variety of groups. ‘I have been giving the question of if I have experienced sexism as an improvising musician quite a lot of thought. The answer is definitely yes. Sometimes it was overt, sometimes it was more subtle. It has certainly cost me opportunities or bookings that somehow my male playing partners received – as in, it was cool with the venue if I was playing in one of my male playing partners’ bands, but somehow I would never get the booking for one of my projects – even if those same guys were involved…or, I wasn’t interested in a sexual relationship with someone, and thereafter they were always in competition with me, and never helped me – although they were in a position to do so.

‘Simultaneously, most of my playing partners, recording engineers, best friends and colleagues have been male. I am happily and lovingly married to the same guy for almost 27 years. I had a great relationship with my Dad. So men have helped me, men have hindered me. And, I can say similar things about the women in my life. Some have been helpful, some have been hurtful.’

The themes that come through from what these musicians and others said are quite clear. Women are generally treated equally in a performance context and generally sex appeal isn’t a factor, but probably is on occasion. Another clear message is that the level of equality has improved and, more than ever, women are influencers within improv (and experimental music generally), as several of the artists above are educators, leaders and respected as musicians in their own right. The younger performers reflected a different perspective of either not finding any issues at all or in fact finding their gender to give them opportunities for the sake of equality. Something that all of the contributors put across was more self-reflection and addressing their own confidence in accessing the world of improvised music, but maybe that’s just more about the high levels of empathy women have towards others in general.

I would like to give special thanks to all the women and men who contributed their thoughts to this, there were many more quotes I could have included but this would have been a vast article. However, everyone’s views and observations and stories that I received have contributed to the piece. This reflects the views and experiences of just a few people.

Rick Jensen is a musician and writer and manages an educational service for people with learning disabilities by day. He’s published two books and released around 300 albums.

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