“To Be or Not to Be” by LaDonna Smith

the improvisor festival-post mortem

Timelessness. That’s the art of making time seemingly disappear in a bubble of truth that is the present state of being. It is of being inside a creative loop, beyond the gap of consciousness obliterated by spontaneity, an escape from pre-determined expectations to actions ruled by impulse. And that’s what free improvisation is all about. It can happen in any medium. It is an art form that is risky, exciting, and on the edge. It is an art form of trusting the consciousness to come forth with a tangible creation, drawn from the innermost core of the limitless unknown, beyond self-consciousness, and often trusting a collective consciousness among collaborators. It’s the deep state of awareness blending self with other. In it, we lose track of time, but not of awareness.

Opening night at the Improvisor festival kicked off with Birmingham drumming group Out of the Darge, Claire Elizabeth Barratt (dancer from Ashville, NC), and improvising vocalist Jill Burton (from Gainesville, FL). Local belly dancers joined Butoh and Modern dancers for the opening soiree.

The Improvisor, the international journal of free improvisation, produced and published in Birmingham, Alabama by local musicians (Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith), celebrates and promotes the art of Improvisation in America and the Southeast, as well as Europe and other remote and far reaching communities from Asia to Malaysia. This past summer to commemorate the occasion of the 30 year anniversary of the Improvisor, a month-long festival took place daily in venues around Birmingham. Satellite concerts were held in New York City, Seattle, Jackson, Chattanooga, Athens, and Atlanta.

Musicians, dancers, and spoken word artists from around the country took up residence, joining local improvisers of varying disciplines to practice the art form, delivering concerts, happenings, and appearances in “Odd Places.”

From the stages of Workplay, Bottletree, Children’s Dance Foundation, and a variety of venues at Pepper Place to the ancient Indian sites of Moundville, the stacks of Sloss Furnace, and even amidst sunshine and flora at the Botanical Gardens, artists and improvisers would convene, and spend an hour or up to four, experimenting with sounds, movement, and words. Searching the moment for the sense of “presence” in the silent and rich infinitude of the universal consciousness is the core of the craft. “Being” in the moment, and observing, as time revealed specific actions, sounds, and movements.
The gift of giving “audience” to “audiance,” the act of listening deeply, and the abandon of spontaneous creation is the essential nature of the art.

Davey Williams, LaDonna Smith, and Wally Shoup lived in Birmingham and actively played together in the 1980s. Wally now lives in Seattle, Washington, and is an organizer of the Seattle Improv Festival.

Birmingham has had a long history of musicians, folk and jazz, classical, avant-garde, and popular. But most of our population is disconnected from the living artists, who are among us but largely invisible, obscured by the domination of mainstream media-picks, commercial productions, cover bands, or what passes for the usual nightclub or bar music, or the dominating influence of television sports . Aside from these preoccupations, most young people are now experiencing music and dance primarily through ear buds and screens! This is actually a frightening reality.

I have always believed that making music was within the reach of every human being. In the old cultures, people sang. They made up songs, and orally passed them down. There was ritual drumming in some cultures, and the European cultures developed more and more evolved instruments, on prototypes of strings, percusssion and winds, common to all cultures.

Andrea Centazzo, musician, director and filmscore artist. He played a key role in launching Smith/Williams' first European tour in 1978, during which they recorded and released the album "Velocities."

Our modern society has somehow lost a deep connection with shared community music making. I think it is a really important aspect of our social culture that we cannot afford to lose. Just think, you never played an instrument before in your life, and someone handed you a saxophone. You explore it with your breath and your fingers. Okay, maybe it’s not for you, but perhaps something about the trombone turned you on. You naturally created a buzz, and began to enjoy the deep tones that came from the bell. You explored the positions on the slide. Before long, you would be able to contribute sound to sound bodies, if there were no rules, no problem with adopting the “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” mentality, and you gave yourself the gift of contributing your discoveries in a larger sound field, perhaps a community of people, who enjoyed playing and listening to the composite sound structures, made through the act of improvising. I would entertain the notion of “Improvisation as Cultural Recreation!” How fun is that?

Perhaps replacing baseball as the national past-time? Why not? It’s non-competitive, enriching, and fun.

Andrew DeWar, who teaches at the University of Alabama and is a member of the Anthony Braxton band, with Killick Eric Hinds of Athens, GA.

With words, or abstract musical sounds, or movement, one action leads to the next, becoming a springboard of playful entries which intertwine, soar, connect, oppose or commune into a single gesture of communicative behavior. An even more poignant player in the exchange is the observer, the listener, who is the receptor of the activity, who hears, sees, and follows openly. Open to the unfamiliar, patient and equally imaginative, the observer, active, passive, or improvisatory, formulates impressions as the elements of improvisation are revealed.

The art of improvisation, comes together in the moment. Sometimes it comes in a flash of inspiration, sometimes reluctantly by invitation, or even by necessity. It hides itself in our lives, as we draw on our intuition and impulse in making daily decisions, or responding to demands in our everyday lives. As art reflects life, so life reflects art. Improvisation is the art of living. To utilize it as a form of active response within our favored artistic discipline would seem only natural, and an activity that anyone can access and approach, and generally do every day.

The festival celebrated 30 years of documenting the activities of free improvisation in America, the South, and yes, Alabama. There is greater receptivity and awareness now, more than ever before, right here in Birmingham.

The dance finale of "Odd of Medusa." Writer Leisha Hultgren featured front left.

Now we move on. As a follow-up to the improvisor festival, there are plans at Pepper Place to continue with a once monthly Improv Series. It will be inclusive of all art forms. Visitors and practitioners alike will be invited to participate or just attend and observe. Think “BE.” Birmingham Experience!

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Beyond the hoopla of a festival, and all the energy that comes from an influx of celebrities, guests, and artists, now we move toward an opportunity to settle into getting to know our own diverse community of improvisers, living right here in our immediate vicinity.

We hope to expand that community. The idea is to convene in an appropriate space, to collaborate in regular sessions, involving improvised music, words, and movement, even visual art. Participants will bring instruments, or a notebook to draw or write, or an idea for a group collaboration. Dancers and performance “artists” are involved in the art of improvisation as well as musicians. We will work with those present, inviting raw action, raw collaboration, providing a safe space to create together.

A fine way to pass an evening, as an alternative to sport, practicing Art! Words! And Music! To create new images with a passion for the experience itself, not necessarily aiming for a particular performance.

Stephen Roberts from Louisville, KY, and Clifford McPeek from New Orleans, LA, during the opening night's Magic City Meltdown.

To truly “experience” the act of creation in music, dance, and art, you must give yourself permission to participate, as an active participant, rather than just an observer. There will be no barriers drawn between audience and performer, other than those which are set as parameters at the onset of the session. Expect the unexpected, remain open to allow the flow as it goes, not as you may conceive it.

Each of us has something to give, and to take away from such an experience. Sounding your inner music, through voice, body movement, or creatively expressing through an instrument, heightens sensitivity and awareness. Abandoning “entertainment” for entrainment, or memorized musical accomplishments for raw vibrational soundings, a new form of musical recreation is born. Music is the Universal Language. Therefore we each must make our own. Improvisation is a vehicle for that expression. Anyone can do it. There will be skilled artists and there will be amateurs, but it is a form of recreation that would raise our culture to new levels of communion, because anyone can play!


LaDonna Smith is a musician and educator from Birmingham, AL, who has recorded and toured all over the world. Through her work with the Improvisormagazine, she has been responsible for keeping improvised music alive in the Southeastern United States. She has played and organized numerous concerts in Birmingham, hosting performers from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Photos in this post were taken by Alice Faye Love during the Improvisor Festival 2010.

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