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Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith / Oxford Improvisers Orchestra

Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford

Saturday 26th November 2011

Leo Smith has been appearing sporadically in the UK for the past couple of years now – a particular recent highlight being his triumphant performance with Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo at the 2010 Freedom of the City festival – but this year’s version of Cohesion, the Oxford Improvisers’ annual event dedicated to concerts, talks, workshops, and community collaboration, gave a more in-depth chance for local musicians to engage with his work, for differing and varied approaches to bounce and rub off each other in extended dialogue.

Smith’s pre-concert talk highlighted as errors just the kinds of phrases and categorisations that those writing on this kind of music always fall back on, so what follows will no doubt risk generalizing and eliding some of the qualities which characterised the evening, but here’s an attempt, anyway. The evening’s proceedings proper got under way with a major new project, in some ways the culmination of Smith’s week-long residency. This new orchestral piece, written, and rehearsed over that past week, featured the two-dozen or so members of the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra – filled, needless to say, with a real wealth of (underappreciated) talent, musicians fully capable of acting as soloists in their own right, though their reputation, as it is, would restrict them to the status of the merely ‘local’. I say ‘merely’ – the Cohesion festival, as it has existed over the past few years, has always been about establishing connections between different systems of global music, about inviting guest musicians to collaborate, about fostering that kind of cultural exchange. Smith, in that sense, was the perfect guest, unassuming, modest, yet with a strong and clear vision, setting up a directional framework around which a group of improvisers could coalesce, and with whose help they could develop in ways beyond the usual totally open approach which tends to be favoured (broadly speaking, of course) in European free improvisation.

The piece itself constantly returned, for refreshment and reinvigoration, to massed, non-transposable chords – enormous, resonant clusters of sound, filling and swelling out the resonant space of the JDP. In his talk, Smith had explained his interest in the open-ended, overlapping nature of such ensemble sound-clouds, in which subtle timbral shifts and pulsing motions occur with a kind of visceral, vibratory, physical effect – for instance, certain instrumentalists will run out of breath, while others are capable of sustaining notes almost indefinitely, so the sound never remains entirely static; is always in some ways pulsing, alive. (One of the nicest moments of the whole evening came when I noticed a couple of pre-teen children, watching from the upstairs balcony, drumming along on the railing, sensing the implied, sustained rhythmic underlay to those chords, their imperative, clarion call, seemingly indefinitely stretched and yet always threatening to break, like a tidal wave suspended, gloriously, in mid-air.) In between these chords, then, which functioned something like the repeated stock phrases in oral epic poetry – that is, as rest points in which new ideas can be generated – there were passages of solo improvisation (most notably, an extended, cadenza-like solo for violinist Malcolm Atkins), and moments in which simple, three- or four-note melodies or motifs would be passed around the ensemble, each instrumentalist sounding the motif in their own fashion, at different speeds, thus creating a kind of blurring effect in which the melodies swam into and out of focus, with the same kind of ecstatic, shimmering impact as the chords – a compelling simultaneity of the static and the fluid, the forward-driving and the endlessly-hovering, like the extended ‘plateaus’ of energy which Gregory Bateson identified in Balinese music and ritual. As Smith noted after the performance, it was a real surprise to find so many musicians willing to play this music – musicians, one might add, that are ignored, for the most part, by the ‘hip’ jazz or experimental press, always more keen to go for the trendy cross-over or the established name, and thus doing themselves out of much that is vital and ongoing in communities around the country. Make no mistake, while Smith’s piece was deeply compelling in its own right, it sets up a framework which depends for its success on the improvising skills of the musicians who perform it, and the Oxford Improvisers passed that test (if one call it that, rather than, say, participatory work, creative collaboration and celebration) with flying colours.

After the interval, Smith took a seat in the audience as the orchestra played an improvised conduction, led by Pat Thomas. Beginning with sparse, textural playing in which Belinda Bell’s sellotape manipulations were gradually subsumed into key-clicking and string-knocking from bass clarinets and violins, the piece modulated between louder explosions (generally held in check), and quieter, or solo passages, one of the nicest of these contrasts occurring during an unexpected tabla solo; dig, too, Roger Telford’s scraped, singing cymbals, meshing eerily and strangely and beautifully with guitars and strings and winds and who knows what else.

If the timbral range of Smith’s first-half orchestral piece was fulsome and wide – from the lovely, resonant low end provided by tuba, by double-bass, by mallet-struck drums and by twin bass clarinets, to the air-cutting high register of melodicas, violins, and a squelching triple-electric-guitar barrage – Alexander Hawkins’ concluding composition, appropriately enough for the final item of the evening, had a more intimate, chamber feel to it, the melody again passed round particular instrumental groupings (the violins in particular), before the entire ensemble raised the volume level, then died away again, all the while playing under Smith’s improvised solo (often in interaction with pianist Pat Thomas), his line ranging from low, vocalised blarts and growls to the most piercingly beautiful and direct of open tones, sent out soaring into the space (note Smith’s calisthenics, bending low and then standing straight, horn pointing alternately to the floor and to the ceiling; it’s part of his whole process of playing, that the physical means of producing sound should not be eradicated or politely hidden, but that making music should be a matter for the whole body, and that the instrument should function as that body’s extension). As the orchestra faded out, Smith was left with just the held drone of Bruno Guastalla’s cello, over which he played muted phrases of an almost nursery-rhyme-like simplicity, plaintive and wistful and delicate in that peculiarly affecting manner that would sometimes creep into Miles Davis’ playing in the 1980s (I’m thinking of moments, in particular, from the 1985 album ‘Aura’). And then it was over –a sigh, deep breathing, and applause – or, not quite over, just time for an encore, all of thirty seconds long; a contrast, just for the hell of it, I guess, in which Smith played above the entire-orchestra’s eruption of sound (the control he has, to still be heard as a distinct voice above twenty instruments, is quite remarkable). And then it was really over –boom, Smith brought down his hand, signalled everyone out, performed a mock stumble, a pratfall on the edge of the stage, jumped up and off that stage.

(The music, of course, is never really over. It carries on. It is carrying on, right now, in this room, as I write, as I recall it to my mind. You can hear it singing all around.)

© David Grundy 2011



Cohesion Festival 2011

Pegasus Theatre, 3 December 2011  New Moves New Sounds

Seven musicians, four dancers and three artists – an intriguing line-up for the final performance of this year’s Cohesion Festival, put together by musicians Pat Thomas, Bruno Guastalla, Malcolm Atkins, and Anne Ryan of Oxford Improvisers.

The evening began with the musicians. There were three guest artists – Tunde Jegede (kora), Hafeez Al-Karrar (percussion) and Ahmed Abdul Rahman (erhu) – plus four members of Oxford Improvisors: Pete McPhail (flute/sax), Jill Elliott (viola), Sarah Verney Caird (voice) and Pat Thomas (electronics). The group had only played together once before, earlier in the day, and this was apparent in the first piece. Some contributions were fairly tentative, as each player tried to find their place in the music. The first two pieces featured some beautiful kora playing from Tunde Jegede. However, it was in the third piece, when Ahmed Abdul Rahman was the featured musician, that the ensemble began to gel. Rahman’s plangent erhu playing seemed to give the other musicians more opportunities to connect and interact. By the end of the first half, everyone really began to relax and enjoy each other’s sounds.

The second improvisation of the evening introduced the dancers. Ana Barbour entered first, alone. Barbour’s combination of superb technique, a strong stage presence and an exceptional improvisational intelligence made her a treat to watch all evening. One of my favourite moments was in the second half, when she went round the musicians and some of the audience blowing lightly on their hand or cheek. Each breath was like a gift.

Barbour was joined in the first dance piece by ballet dancer Susie Crow. For me, her work was less impressive. Her improvisations were often quite obvious interpretations of one element in the music or dance. She also worked very much with gesture, which restricted her range. In this piece there were a few nice moments between the two dancers. However, like the musicians, the dancers had not worked together before, and it took them some time to develop any rapport.

The third improvisation featured dancers Aya Kobayashi and Jason Manito from Anjali Dance Company. Aya Kobayashi’s movement is strong, clean and varied: she is clearly a gifted contemporary dancer. However, as an improviser she was restless, never taking time to focus on an idea and follow it through. She also sometimes failed to understand how what she was doing fitted in with other people. Jason Manito was less strong technically, but had a real sense of exploration and of delight in the moment that made him a pleasure to watch. Kobayashi and Manito worked well together throughout the evening. But it would have been nice if they had worked more with the other dancers. In the second half of the evening there was a really enjoyable section where Barbour, Kobayashi and Manito together played with the idea of birds and fluttering wings. But the dancers were unable to build on this connection.

The third element in this Cohesion performance was the work of graphic artists Clare Bassett, Kassandra Isaacson and Susan Moxley. They worked live, and their work was projected onto a backdrop behind the dancers. This element of the performance surprised and utterly delighted me. The artists had very different rhythms in their work, one rapid and darting, another with a slow, confident flow to her brush strokes. Time and again, the artist’s work would complement what was happening in the dance or music. It also produced moments of sheer magic, as lightning brush strokes followed the fluttering hand movements of a dancer, or a wash of colour flowed across the backdrop and transformed the setting. The final improvisation, in which the artists worked for a time without the dancers, was completely absorbing.

Multi-disciplinary arts events can be a minefield. The idea is often more attractive than the reality. However, the Pegasus Cohesion evening was put together with intelligence and creativity. This resulted in an intriguing, absorbing and at times magical evening. However, the performance was let down a little by a lack of improvisational intelligence in some of the dance work.

© Andrew Solway 2011


I think Andy’s review is very good but I feel he is coming from a particular perspective on dance improvisation.

I actually think Susie’s use of gestural interpretation is fascinating and it is an attempt to use a narrative style similar to Kathak whilst using the technical language of ballet. It’s different to much contemporary dance improvisation which is often more playful and abstracted.  I felt that some of his critique of Aya was valid and at times she did act like a skilled music improviser displaying the expected atonal angst that can typify some free improv performances where individual expression can take precedence over structural integrity and use of space. I actually felt that Susie and Ana framed this well and created useful contrasts here.  Also, Aya and Jason did work particularly well together and I found the contrast of their maximalism with Ana and Susie’s minimalism was very effective.

I also feel Susie’s approach worked especially well in combination with Ana’s approach which is often a more surreal and lateral gestural interpreration – the blowing on players is an obvious but brilliant interpretation of the idea of the dance leading the music which was the general instruction for this piece.

I wonder if Andy in his desire for a structural coherence is like a choreographer with a specific vision or even a hard line free improviser who might criticise the music for being tonally limited and not using sufficient contrasting key and rhythm – this is a possible music criticism but I felt that the integrity of the music transcended the concordance of the players. It actually was cohesive but I worried occasionally that it was too polite – especially in the first half.

The comments on the tentativeness of the music at the start and the visual element were very astute. What was particularly effective in this performance was the way the visual art became a performative art especially with Susie Moxley’s solo. Also, the interaction of dance and visual response was very effective with some very strong interaction of movement and drawn line in the first section of the second half.


December 6, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Wow! I’ve never been called a hard line free improviser before. I’m flattered, I think. I do think that my reactions to the dance were more extreme than to the music or the visual art, and probably less rational. But I’m certainly not a hard-liner. I’m a great fan of form and structure. I probably like Ana’s work because she has a very strong structural sense when she is improvising.

I don’t agree with your comment about Aya acting like a skilled movement improviser. I think she had great skill as a dancer, but less as an improviser. Or perhaps more accurately (and fairly) less skill in improvising for performance.

I’m interested in your comments on Susie’s work. Maybe I will be persuaded more to your viewpoint in the future. I missed the Kathak connection myself. There is an interpretive strand to Kathak, but it is allied with nritta, pure dance.

I’m not sure that I said anything about the music not being cohesive. In the second half the ensemble was great: really relaxed and comfortable with each other, and even when the interactions were tentative, the music was still of a high standard. If you are saying that I was being hard line about the dance being ‘tonally limited’ – no, not that either. My concern was that, taken as a whole, the dance had a somewhat limited improvisational awareness, particularly with regard to its theatrical impact.

I agree entirely that the visual art was like a performance, and especially in the final piece (was that Susie Moxley?) I was surprised by how delicate and refined tha actual pieces of art looked, after seeing them being created on such a huge canvas.


I was comparing you to a hard-line improviser in the sense that I know that many would be critical of the concordance of the music and the lack of atonality and of arrhythmic exploration.  I felt that your criticism of Susie seemed to be from a particular perspective on structural relations of dancers – which is perhaps like someone criticising music for its particular genre approach. I liked the fact that each dancer brought a different improvising tradition to bear in their approach but I did think that Susie and Ana had an awareness of space which Susie found through simple – almost classical gesture – and Ana through both simple and surreal gesture and a real sense of poise and play. This seemed to complement Jason and Aya when it worked at its best.

My comments about the music being cohesive were actually a defence of its lack of diversity from my perspective rather than relating to what you had said.. For me the music was very good but it bordered on being polite and I feel this was about cohesion because the guest musicians were accommodated and not challenged.  This was fine but unusual because normally we would move the music to different areas and create more tension even if this was finally resolved. It is interesting that I would be more critical of the music than dance in a review – although I felt that both music and dance were exceptional. This was an outstanding performance overall. The concordance and the beauty of the music could also be considered in the context of the entire festival as this was the only event that explored this musically and therefore it complemented by its difference in scope the diversity of the other events which included far more dialectical opposition of sound worlds and vocabularies. In fact there was more contrast in this performance in dance techniques and drawing to dance. It may be that this encouraged a more concordant style of music as the musicians were often operating as a unit in contrasting with the other arts – perhaps in a more ‘choreographed’ style.

With Aya I was comparing her to some improvisers who let their personal expression take precedence over the structural integrity of a work. This often happens with skilled players who are keen to explore their personal vocabulary. It’s not something that always works but it is a common approach and a reason why technique can be a disadvantage in improvisation as the moment so often only requires a modicum of someone’s potential for expression. It is nonetheless extremely exciting when someone loses themselves in this and draws the audience with them. I feel she did this – especially when working with Jason – and her dancing did work in its contrast with Ana and Susie’s more measured comment. I felt the strength of the dance was often in this degree of contrast even where the dancers did not directly engage with one another.  In this sense the dance was also cohesive but in a less obvious way than in terms of direct physical engagement that typifies contact or other contemporary dance styles. Perhaps it was more ‘musical’ in its layering of meaning through fast, slow, loud and soft and positioning of voices. Similarly the visual artists adopted performance styles we would associate with music in the delivery of statement, response and comment. This was far more dynamic dialogue than detached observation.

Andrew Solway 9th December 2011

That’s a very interesting analysis of the music. I agree that it was cohesive, and exceptionally good, despite bordering on politeness.

Wrt the dance I accept your general points about contrast and opposition, different traditions of improvisation and the idea of personal expression taking precedence over the structural integrity of a work. But I’m afraid I don’t accept that these were the things that were going on in this performance. Of course contrast and opposition can work just as well as harmony and concordance. But you have to be on some level aware and in control. It has to be on some level a choice to follow your own expression and not interact with other performers/the music/the visual work. My argument is that often these things happened through limitations of awareness – of the space, of other performers, of the theatrical space. The visual artists followed their own expressive process and were not always consciously aware of what was going on in the music (I asked). But they had a really good awareness of the impact of what they were doing, and a strong feel for the dynamics of what was going on, for the arc of time. As a result, their work really engaged the audience. The musicians had this kind of awareness, too. But with the dance, it was more patchy. There were definitely times when one dancer or another seemed not to have this kind of awareness. And the problem is that with dance or physical theatre, audiences really notice this. Humans have an incredibly acute sensitivity to physical signals, and it makes the job of a physical performer that much harder.

I also wanted to moan about your assumption that that because I have done contact and contemporary dance, I look at things from this perspective. But – enough already!

Susie Crow  12th December 2011

Have enjoyed this discussion, it has given a lot to think about. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to dance with such a choice musical ensemble, and the artists’ work seemed really inspired. But I think that from a dance perspective I was not completely satisfied with what I did, and it is useful to hear how it appeared, to get some clues as to how to improve the interaction in future. One very practical consideration; this was the first time we have done this work with the artists in such a complex grouping in a theatrical pros arch space with lighting. Last year we were in the Pegasus studio, so although also a black box (which really shows off the projection to advantage), we were still in a shared space with audience sitting round on three sides. In the theatre space with wings the musicians and artists were in the performing space all the time, but there were times when the dancers were not. It was sometimes impossible to see what was going on with other dancers when not on the stage. In retrospect I think this may have been unhelpful; hard to sustain a sense of the development of what other dancers are doing and therefore how you might relate to it when you miss chunks of it, as though going out of the room.

This work is developing, very much a process of finding things out as one goes along. Improvisation across genres in dance highlights different aesthetics, philosophies and performing conventions; arguably trying to be aware and read different signals can make one tentative and excessively “polite” in intervening where there are more likely to be physical consequences to misunderstanding. As with the music there is a tension between striving to be cohesive and to blend, and exploring one’s own individual train of thought and movement within a specific genre. More opportunites needed to gain experience and strategies for dealing with this in the dance.

Re the comments about Kathak, I find that as a ballet dancer I greatly admire aspects of its classical tradition, and empathize with its use of defined dance vocabulary in combination with sophisticated narrative gesture. Though no practitioner, I have worked with a Kathak dancer, and occasionally consciously borrowed ideas and gestures.




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