SA2: THE NETWORKING ISSUE

From the Editor: I have a confession to make.... The idea of organization has always frightened me. I've had an aversion to anything that seemed hierarchical, or merely organized since I was little. Although I think of myself as a “plays well with others type”, I have always gravitated to those situations in which the possibility of leaderless, organic solving of a problem is the highest. I’m convinced that it is why I enjoy improvising the most. It provides a high level of group consciousness and cooperation towards a common goal with the least amount of discussion. One possible explanation of this general distrust of any group with membership cards is the community I was raised in. When I was a child, if there was a problem, a group of people seemed to just appear, think about the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, drink a beer, experiment with possible solutions, drink another beer and find the one answer that, even if it wasn’t the most elegant or efficient, solved the problem the quickest. There was never any thought given to having to present the problem to a higher authority, have it debated at a distance and the solution blindly accepted. It never crossed their minds. The problem was handled as a group, a community, a gathering, and never as an association, organization, or coalition. I'm not a naive by-stander jumping on a Occupy X bandwagon, however. I understand the need for hierarchy in society. The use of the word “utopia” in talking about egalitarian anarchist structures is apt for a reason: they would take a miracle to put into practice. However, in the small spaces of our daily lives, we tend to over-organize, over-structure, and over-stratify our mundane human dealings. This creates a situation in which we lose, as individuals, our desire to take charge of our lives, as well as the ability to think creatively and critically. Once we lose that, it's a very short step to misplacing our identities as human beings. The place where strict hierarchical thinking is the most out of its element is in the arts. While funding, presenting, and artist rights organizations are absolutely essential and a vastly underappreciated part of any arts landscape, the tendency exists to set up very specific, stratified grassroots “artists collectives” under the direction of charismatic leaders, self-styled promoters, and well meaning fellow artists that are trying to band together to fight a common evil (in the case of music, usually the exact organizations they should be trying to find ways to collaborate with….funders, presenters, bookers, etc.). The result ends up being confrontation and misunderstanding more often than not. Not all of these organizations are counter-productive, but there is a tendency for them to fall prey to the loudest voices in the hierarchy usually those with the least amount of ability to work toward the common good. This promotes more stratification, more concentration on individual personalities, and less energy toward the ultimate goal.....MAKING MUSIC. It is not these organizations that we are concentrating on in this issue of Sound American. We chose the term networking as our focus for a reason. Instead of organization in a specific sense, all three of the featured groups of people have found themselves drawn together, due primarily to their physical proximity, to deal with a common aesthetic or attack a common problem. A certain amount of hierarchical organization has come and gone with each of them, but in general they have maintained enough flexibility in the way that they approach each other and their goals that they have been successful in their endeavors and have withstood the test of time. It’s our desire to celebrate their existence, their philosophies, and of course…their music. The BSC is a seminal large improvising group from Boston. Now active for over a decade, the group formed primarily as a workshop to deal with preconceptions and problems specific to a kind of improvisation that was (and is still) attempting to draw from various musical influences without becoming a sub-grouping of any particular one (again a nod to non-hierarchical thinking). In this issue, we are pleased to feature two excerpts from longer essays featured in the BSC’s new book Manual. The first is from the introduction written by the BSC’s de facto “leader”, Bhob Rainey, and the second from a fascinating history of the founding of the large group and its early formative practice techniques written by Aaron P. Tate. We’re also incredibly excited that each of these organizations generously agreed to allow the streaming of certain tracks from their recordings. Bundled together as “mix tapes”, each group is presented separately on their own page, along with a brief description of the group and what makes the music special. I think this is an invaluable addition to the text and podcast. After all, Sound American is about music…yes, the ideas are interesting, and we can talk about hierarchy and utopian ideals of organization, but if the music isn’t interesting then it’s simply empty words. I think you’ll agree that there is nothing here that does anything but add to the strength of the argument that brilliant music can be made when a group of people come together because of their mutual love and respect for what it takes to make it.

the BSC

BSC: 23% Bicycle And/Or The Ribbons Of Order

The BSC: The History and Practice of a Group of People Coming Together to Push the Bounds of an Aesthetic. The BSC was formed by composer / improviser Bhob Rainey in August, 2000. Comprised of eight improvisers with a variety of musical backgrounds, the ensemble’s intent has been to confront the challenges of large group improvisation while engaging with contemporary repertoire that is geared towards innovative, electroacoustic sound production. Though the members of the BSC live in several different cities, Boston remains the ensemble's primary working base. There, the BSC has been a mainstay of concert series that promote both improvised and composed music, often involving collaboration with international artists and with the New England Conservatory The BSC's idiosyncratic approach to instrumental performance has made it attractive to improvisors and composers working in the electroacoustic idiom, especially those involved with non-traditional notation. In 2010, Bhob Rainey commissioned four writers from different disciplines to contribute to a book on the BSC's improvisational practices. The book, Manual, which received a grant from Loyola University New Orleans' "Year of the Writer" program, was released along with a full-length album at the end of 2011. What follows are edited excerpts from larger essays written by Rainey and Aaron P. Tate on the history, social dynamic and the group's uniquely rigorous approach to confronting the pitfalls of large group improvisation.

THE BSC was formed by Bhob Rainey in August, 2000.

 

Comprised of eight improvisers with a variety of formal and informal musical backgrounds, the ensemble’s intent has been to confront the difficulties of large group improvisation without recourse to predetermined, compositional solutions.

 

The group is made up of the following musicians:

 

Mike Bullock: Contrabass

 

James Coleman: Theremin

 

Chris Cooper: Guitar and electronics

 

Greg Kelley: Trumpet

 

Bhob Rainey: Soprano saxophone, director

 

Vic Rawlings: Amplified/prepared cello, open circuit electronics

 

Howard Stelzer: Tapes

 

Liz Tonne: Voice

INTRODUCTION BY BHOB RAINEY INTERVIEWER: How do you get to that point, with such a large group of improvisers, where you have the discipline to know when to get out of the way, when to let a fragile voice sit out there all alone? Because, it’s very powerful… VIC RAWLINGS: Well, you do it wrong a bunch of times, and you feel like shit. It was probably the summer of 2002, and Vic Rawlings was on the radio. I was supposed to be there as well, but some other obligation got in the way. Still, I was able to tune in and hear what Vic was saying. He was talking about the BSC on WHRB. The DJ had just played a significant chunk of what was to be our first release (Good, Grob Records, 2003). The music was recorded in Boston’s Church of the Advent, a lavish Episcopalian edifice that we only had access to because the sexton, Matt Samolis (aka “Shoe”), happened to be part of the local experimental music scene. We were joined that evening by Axel Dörner and Andrea Neumann, both from Berlin, who were in the U.S. to begin a month-long tour with Greg Kelley and me. Their presence brought the size of the ensemble to ten musicians. At a certain point in the music, after some seriously dense passages, nine of the ten musicians drop out and leave Liz Tonne’s voice alone in the huge, mostly empty space of the church. What she does in that moment is spellbinding — a fragile, split-toned duet with her own echo that would have been far less powerful had anyone else added a sound. It is a moment of such significance that it justifies and elevates every other moment in the piece, as if all the preceding activity served solely to bring forth this exceptional event, and all subsequent sounds could only unfold from the tremendous provocations held within it. It’s hardly surprising that the DJ chose this passage to excerpt or that he asked Vic how it could have come about. There was a short pause before Vic’s response. In that pause I thought of two years of BSC rehearsals and of all the discussions and spindly tangents that spilled out of those evenings. I summoned every tortured literary reference that I could recall even the slightest gist of and that could be used, however flimsy the justification, to answer the question. My mind was wrapped in tangled, elliptical paragraphs, and then, Vic: You do it wrong a bunch of times, and you feel like shit. There was the process, stark and self-effacing — everything that needed to be said bundled into one compound sentence. It’s a statement, like Liz’s fragile self-duet, whose impact would only be diluted by elaboration. A year or so after the WHRB interview, the BSC went on tour. At some point during the performances of the first three, maybe four nights, everyone besides Liz would drop out, and her voice would carry the piece for a while. This was never part of any plan (we didn’t work from plans), but it didn’t come across as particularly spontaneous, either. In fact, it was tiresome. We weren’t dropping out because we recognized the presence of something singular and formidable. We were dropping out because it was an easy way to both quit our ideas while we were ahead and to seem “profound.” This was like pushing peas around on a plate to make it look like some were eaten, and it needed to be addressed. If you were to ask the other members of the BSC what happened between the fourth and fifth nights, they’d probably say that I yelled at them. I’ve heard the phrase used before. I think it’s an affectionate way of saying that I called it as I saw it, and that I wasn’t going to be very happy if things continued in the same vein. The fact is that the forms surrounding significant moments in the past can rarely be relied on to conjure up significant moments in the present. We know this, and yet we forget it over and over again. The mistake is in “the attempt to ground the ‘conditions of possibility’ on the objectivity they permit, or creativity on what it creates.” 1 Loosening our grip on past successes allows us to reframe our perception, take more risks, spot more opportunities. To that end, even though I’m incredibly fond of Vic’s formulation and still believe that it expresses something resembling the heart of the matter, ringing it like a church bell in a ghost town doesn’t have the same effect it had nearly a decade ago. Vic cunningly packed a mystery inside those lines, but mysteries eventually seep out of their containers. They don’t shrivel under our scrutiny; they just escape. We might have thought that this one couldn’t survive a barrage of words aimed at making it speak, but we were just looking at the tiny part we had in front of us, thinking it was timid and impossibly delicate when, in fact, it was we who were so frail. I want to talk about feeling like shit. I’ve had the good fortune of working with musicians who suffer an inordinate amount of guilt when they don’t (in their view, at least) rise to the occasion. The intensity of their shame far exceeds the apparent stakes of, say, a concert or rehearsal. Their skin burns, their stomach gains an all-too-vivid awareness of its contents, their mind deliberates with vengeful brutality, repeatedly handing down the verdict that they are, in fact, complete frauds. You don’t often have to tell people like this what to do. You can just confirm that you know what they’ve done and let the guilt do the rest. Should this not seem a perverse enough position to take towards your closest friends, consider that you may also ask them to aim the music towards that guilt. There is something to unpack at the moment of shame, something that only presents itself in the vicinity of that moment. A congealed collection of possibilities may at first appear only as a sickening blockage — a guilt-soaked lump. In order to confront and peel apart that noisome mass, we look for the conditions that will lead us back to it. This is not seeking perfection by eradicating mistakes; this is heading into the wrongness to see what it conceals. Behind all of this wrongness is the implication that there is a way to do it right, and this is where it’s easy to get into trouble — few things are more anathema to “free” improvisation, its practitioners and audience, than a prescription. The trouble starts not so much at “right” and “wrong” as it does in their application. To assume that, given sounds A, B, and C at time period X, there is a correct sonic response (or a short, prioritized list of good responses), is to miss the more vital subject. What is right or wrong in this case is your disposition — how you are prepared to respond, not what you come prepared with. That disposition, to be right more than it is wrong, will change as conditions change. It is a disposition in relation to myriad, dynamic factors both emanating from and cascading through the musicians themselves. While improvisers may develop strategies to stave off their own potential failures as performers — strategies of virtuosity, ingenuity, power, restraint — the dynamic factors that determine the very palpable desires of music as it unfolds often conspire to make a failure of those very strategies. Ultimately, what is wrong is to think that you’ve ever gotten it right. When you study composition, you typically analyze existing works, looking for logic and suggestions for possibilities that you might apply to your own ends. Likewise, when you study jazz, you transcribe solos from players you admire, learn them by heart, take a few salient excerpts and internalize them until their shapes are so “under your fingers” that they’ve become a baseline off of which you spin endless variations. In both cases, an emphasis is placed on claiming and manipulating material. When the BSC was formed, each individual was already engaged in this discipline of working with material, developing specific virtuosities, examining compositional possibilities, etc., so the emphasis was shifted to developing attitudes capable of realizing big picture compositional events in real- time, where opportunities for reflection and negotiation among conflicting ideas are rare and usually brief. You can keep your influences, but instead of engaging with them and asking only “What are they doing? What can I use?”, you begin to ask “How can we be oriented such that an event of this nature could possibly take place without its being specifically planned?” Musical discourse doesn’t change much with this shift in emphasis. When we talk about the music we want to make, we still use the language of composers, punks, theorists, etc. What changes is how we view and express our methods. This is the most common subject people ask me about when we talk about the BSC — ”What did you guys do / talk about in your rehearsals?” My answer is always the same: We improvised, took note of the problems that arose, examined the nature of each problem — What are its compositional qualities? How / When did it originate? What attitude(s) supported the problem? What options were available to transform the problem as it was happening? What options were available to prevent it from originating? — and frequently created exercises that focused on getting into and out of trouble. We weren’t seeking specific solutions, only an exploratory understanding of our process of improvising. Most people aren’t satisfied when the answer ends here. What were the problems? What were the exercises? What was the vibe in the room (a cramped, clammy Harvard Square basement, better known as Twisted Village)? What did you guys actually say? My response is that the problems were typical, the exercises were dumb, Twisted Village as a rehearsal space was oppressive in a romantic sort of way, and none of us would make a good talking head for any reputable media outlet. The truth is that these rehearsals were messy, earthy, and context-specific by design, because you can talk about music in extravagant conceptual terms, but getting people to navigate through the habits and spurious intuitions that suppress desirable musical outcomes requires that you address those people where they are, at that very moment, in a sometimes imprecise, disposable language. I measure the success of the BSC in part on the propagation of its more general, exploratory method, not the manifestations of that method; hence, what appears to be stonewalling on my part.2 But I acknowledge that, as misleading as specific examples can be, they also have illustrative potential and make better content for spinning good yarns than my dodgy provocations. To date, Aaron Tate has done the most thorough research on the BSC’s rehearsal and performance practices, conducting extensive interviews with each member and applying this mass of remembrances to his analysis of the BSCs recordings and general modes of operation. The resulting kaleidoscope of viewpoints, filtered through the lens of an invested outsider, presents a more truthful recollection of what happened in that basement and in concert than my lone account possibly could. In "Reconstructing the History and Methods of the BSC", Aaron also performs the valuable service of providing a pre- and early history of the group. Through both available recordings and interviews, he uncovers complementary ideas and practices that enhance an understanding of both the BSCs music and that of related ensembles like nmperign and the undr quartet. This is not only a way of clarifying the musical development of this specific group of people, but also a reminder that a scene is as much the sum of friendships and accidents as it is discipline and vision. 1 Nick Land, Fanged Noumena (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence 2011), 173 2 Maybe this is my very Western, secular way of performing the old koan: Q: What is the Buddha? A: That pile of shit over there. The question is answered, in a sense, but it is also “unasked”. If this seems too esoteric or stereotypically Cage-ean, recall instead the Saturday Night Live Jesse Jackson game show parody, “The Question is Moot!”
 REHEARSALS AND AESTHETICS, PART ONE: METHODS AND GOALS When talking with members about the early years of rehearsal and their practice together as a group, several themes and remembrances repeatedly appeared. One is the amount of performance and improvisation that was happening in Boston prior to the BSC’s formation and the ways in which that music affected, often in an inverse way, the developing aesthetics of the large group situation. Another is the impact of Bhob Rainey as leader and facilitator, in particular his ability to hear and to process with uncanny speed the music happening around him. A third is the extent to which everyone contributed, as musical interlocutors and friends, to the early years of discussion, diagnosis, and work. But deeper goals also become clear, desires that traverse both local and more general concerns in the domain of improvisation. These would include at least the following: the foregrounding of material that has been insinuated rather than overtly or frontally presented; the attention to development of form, bolted to a desire to create performance-length pieces equally provocative and satisfying for audience and players alike; the decision to multiply choices and options during group improvisation rather than to follow predictable structural shapes; the explicit commitment to diffusing authority amongst players and audience; the injunction to think orchestrationally and in terms of music as a field rather than a collection of objects and sounds. Always well attuned to discussing the matter at hand, the players in the BSC were able in conversation to reframe by retelling, to rethink by remembering, and to reflect by recounting the many facets of rehearsals that held sway during the early years of the ensemble’s existence. Through a revolving door of intelligence and candor, patience and wit, care and poor cell phone connections, hundreds of significant details emerged. The earliest rehearsals took place after hours in Twisted Village, the record store owned and operated by Kate Village and Wayne Rogers. Mike Bullock sets the scene. “There were record shelves and CD shelves and we were there in the middle of the floor. We would go after hours and set up around the shelves, pack ourselves around them. I would usually stand back behind the electronic music section. Bhob would be up in front near the counter, and Howie would set up his tapes next to Bhob. We were squeezed in at crooked angles, so that we could see each other,” Bullock recalls. But what did the rehearsals amount to, in reality? What took place? What was the balance between playing and talk, exercises and analysis? In conversation, Rainey is humble and self-effacing about rehearsal and his role. Not without wit, he begins, “A lot of people have asked me about this over the years. An article would be interesting, especially if it were largely fiction.” He is wrong, of course — the real story has plenty to recommend it. But Rainey’s disclaimer aside, when asked about the early exercises that he devised for the group, he adds a cautionary word about the privileges of memory: “I cannot with complete confidence say exactly what all of the exercises were. I can talk about things that I know that I have done over the years with the BSC, as well as in other workshops that I have taught, but I cannot say exactly when those things happened, or in which contexts precisely.” Not surprisingly, he can, of course, remember things in extraordinary detail, though his response is echoed by the other members: when asked to recall the earliest practice sessions, nearly everyone began by qualifying their ability to recount specific detail. This was, after all, more than a decade ago. With a bit of conversation, however, all of the members seemed to remember fondly and speak openly. The first thing that becomes evident is the degree to which the ensemble addressed the problems and aesthetic dilemmas they faced as improvisers working together for the first time as a large group — a group, furthermore, who were eager not to repeat past excesses or to settle for less than what they imagined achieving. It was this sense of working toward a shared but unnamed goal, by way of refusal and avoidance of familiar ground, that allowed them to take guidance along the path. One way to achieve it, the members all recognized, was to situate the ongoing conversations in relation to the state of the art of improvisation at the time, especially in Boston, but harnessed as always to their own playing and to their own work as a newly formed group. The standard format of a practice session seems to have been fairly straightforward. The BSC would meet, set up, improvise a piece, and then talk about what they had just played. The discussions were led by Rainey and ranged from the general to the extremely specific; examples of both are given below. Over and over in conversation with members the topic of Rainey’s prodigious aural memory came up, as did the ways in which the group discussed specific issues occurring in the playing itself. Through meeting and playing regularly, the BSC were developing the ability to create and to remember everything that they had just played. As we will see, this was one of Rainey’s goals from the beginning. In conversation, Vic Rawlings is as analytical an improviser as one could hope to meet. On the subject of the early practice sessions and what they were like, Rawlings begins with a comment on the pre-history of the group: “I should say at the beginning that the BSC did not simply happen; it was a product of much time spent playing with each other before being in the BSC. There was already a lot of shared language and shared understanding of what we were doing, and of what we wanted to do. Obviously, being in an eight-member group was different from any of the duos, trios, or quartets. So the rehearsals and a lot of the exercises that we did — and I would include the composed pieces here — gave us insight into ways to behave as a group.” This last phrase, “insight into ways to behave as a group,” elegantly captures what so many other members reported. Rawlings continues his recollection of the earliest days, “Bhob really is the leader of the group, so the rehearsals would often amount to this. We would play, and Bhob would say what he thought of it. And he would give notes, in the same way that a bandleader would give notes, or a director would give notes after a rehearsal. Sometimes we would play for twenty minutes but an hour of conversation would follow.” Howard Stelzer and Liz Tonne emphasized the degree to which the discussion-side of the rehearsal equation depended on Rainey’s ability to remember everything that the ensemble had just played. Like everyone else at the time, Rainey’s ears and memory, and the members’ growing aesthetic judgment, were fulminating in the hothouse environment of a city filled with improvisers and new music performances. This experience naturally seeped into everything that the BSC were doing in rehearsal. Tonne surmises, “Bhob must have had a pretty solid idea of what he wanted the group to do because it was his idea to gather so many musicians in the first place. He seemed already to have an understanding of what it was, and why it was, that he wanted to work with so many people. He brought that background thinking into the rehearsal process immediately.” She continues, “You have to know that Bhob is great at being able to analyze a piece of music in the due time that it’s being played. He hears everything and he hears everything at that moment. He does not need a recording to review what has happened. He was obviously applying this already in his listening and playing, both with the BSC and elsewhere around town. At the time in Boston there were so many performances happening, and there were so many opportunities to see and to hear improvised music, that you frequently had the chance to analyze what was good or not about a performance, and you were able to exercise that skill every time that you went out to see music.” Recollections of what happened in rehearsal tended to lead immediately to reflections on the kinds of strategies that Rainey and the BSC were adopting, both verbally and in the playing. According to everyone, the analysis was most often directed at specific problems that would arise. Effects of a player’s entrance, duration, timbre, or level of activity on the piece as a whole were measured through close scrutiny from the earliest days forward. Rawlings remembers it this way: “Bhob would begin by saying, ‘Here’s what we did,’ and he would facilitate a conversation about what we did, and we would then talk about what we wanted to do. He would raise topics such as, ‘When it comes to this type of playing situation, to the different types of places where the music can go, here is one type of sound that can have a certain effect on the ensemble, and here are some options for what we might do when that happens.’ But we would also discuss things like turning something into a transition, or ways to get out of a section. These were all very basic things about improvising, ideas that were being stated in a clear way for the first time.” Tonne expands on Rawlings’ recollection by saying more regarding the kinds of issues that were discussed at the beginning. Tonne, “Bhob would point out what he was observing as weaknesses in the overall improvising community. He would talk about how to shape our own playing as an ensemble. He would talk about a piece’s overall compositional elements. The rehearsals started out by being more of a discussion of what not to do rather than specific things to do. He would suggest not doing X or Y, because it would lead to a weak piece. Or perhaps, not to a weak piece, but to a way of playing that has been done many, many times before. We were all in agreement that we wanted to avoid that, and we all knew that we wanted to do something different, something new, something fresh. I think that this was Bhob’s main point from the beginning, to ask how we can shape our improvised music in a fresh direction, instead of relying on things such as our natural rhythms and tendencies, especially on this arc- shaped natural rhythm that was being played out over and over and over again. How can we consciously break that up and reshape it?” Members repeatedly explained that one major aspect of rehearsal involved dissolving and rethinking natural inclinations while simultaneously discovering new ways to prevent or to occlude more obvious tendencies in the group’s collective constructions. Greg Kelley articulates all of these points but moves into matters of details when doing so. Here we find a critique of layering, an attention to the shape and architecture of the sound, and a concrete explanation for one strategy that Rainey urged from the beginning, namely, entering together as a group when starting a piece or getting out of a silence. Kelley, “A lot of the work at the beginning was about trying to create interesting music and not to take the easy way out. With so many people involved it’s not an agile situation. Everyone can’t change on a dime. There are tendencies that will come out.” Kelley continues, “For example, there are times when everyone will play a texture together at the same time and not get in the way of anyone else. With that you can create an ambiance where everyone is coexisting. But musically it is completely un-engaging. If everyone picks a texture and settles into it, then yes, it can be easy to create a cohesive, or a seemingly cohesive, whole, but it’s not necessarily musically interesting, at all. So one of the things that Bhob really tried to instill was to create something that was formally interesting, something that had many different shapes to it and that was not musically or formally stagnant. To achieve that places demands on the individual player, because you have to be assertive, you can’t simply sit back and add to the texture. One of the things that we tried to avoid was a layering of sound, where someone starts and then others begin layering in, where it becomes this kind of grey mass of sound. To counter that, we would try to start at the same time, to avoid the situation where one person begins and then others creep in, and then more people creep in. When everyone starts at the same time you have to adapt quickly.” Countless hours were given to the process of rehearsal, especially early on. James Coleman vividly recalls, “We played. And then Bhob would talk about how we were playing. And then we’d play again. And Bhob would talk about how we were playing. And then we would play again. And Bhob would talk about how we were playing.” He laughs warmly. The affection in his voice still palpable, Coleman continues, “Bhob would critique what we were doing and he would point out the problems. The beautiful thing that Bhob did, and it was happening a little bit before, but it became formalized in the BSC, was to be really harsh. To be really harsh and truthful about what the music sounded like.” Coleman adds, “In the beginning Bhob talked a lot about bad habits, about the typical types of things that we’d all tend to do in performance. As in, the things that we would fall back on — he may not have used the word ‘habits’ — but he would say, ‘Now see, there’s this, and when this happened, you did that, and that’s very typical, so maybe we don’t want to do that every time, or at all.’ It was very powerful and very instructionally negative — in the best way. I think that Bhob really stepped it up to a much more negative and critical level, and I would not have had it any other way. It was beautiful.” Rawlings also mentions the amount of labor involved, “It was a lot of work, very fun work to do, but there were times when it was definitely hard work. There were rehearsals that were very much nose-to-the-grindstone, there was sweat that went down, and it was worth it. I don’t think that we would have gotten to the level of discussion and playing that we achieved without it. I would not say that it was so much an organic process as it was like pruning a tree. We knew that there were things that we did not want. Likewise there were times when we would say, ‘We want to do more things like this.’ But you have to practice to make that happen.” The accounts of Coleman, Kelley, Rawlings, and Tonne all point to two major subjects that came up time and again when talking with members about early rehearsals: (1) the realization that in order to move forward there was much to be rejected, reworked, or rethought, all in the name of improving the group’s flexibility and attentiveness to musical shape, structure, and form, and (2) the express desire to cultivate an attention to form so acute that it would allow each player to think and talk in significant detail about the effects of any sound, change, entrance, exit, or other sonic intervention, at any moment, on the shape of the evolving piece as a whole. One of the more intriguing aspects of the process of reconstructing the early rehearsal methods of the BSC is the degree to which individual players, through the haze of a decade’s worth of memory, still managed to speak in ways that reflected Rainey’s clearly articulated vision for the group at its inception. Rainey’s initial comment to me illustrates a reversal of what most people might think were the greatest obstacles at the beginning. Rainey, “Usually when you talk about having eight people, or any large group of people improvising, the problems become things like, people are not being sensitive enough, the sound is a big fat mess, people are not listening well enough, and so on. But with the BSC, it was the opposite problem. Everyone was listening very carefully and giving everybody space. Everyone was playing in such a way that it showed that they were listening to each other, and being very caring, almost in a cloying way. So we had to push our way out of that. That approach had to be shaken up. And I think that you can hear that in the Hampshire recording [from 2003], there’s more persistence, there’s more willingness to be in your own space and to stay in your own space. The music may be rough at times, but you can hear that everyone is confident in not agreeing with everyone else.” As for the oft-rumored early exercises and strategies that he devised for getting the ensemble to drop improv crutches while learning how to attend more patiently to overall form, Rainey eases into the discussion with a general comment about the rationale behind anything that he may have brought in for group consideration. “All of the exercises derived from what I identified as the problem. It’s not as if I had exercises in my pocket, as if to say, ‘Hey, let’s try this.’ We would play and there would be something wrong. Or there would be some other option that we could have chosen. And I would come up with a way of exploiting that. You have to get a feeling for what it physically feels like to do the thing that you are talking about, to physically experience what you are talking about in theory,” he explains. When I mention to Rainey a number of the common problems that the other members discussed trying to avoid, whether it be drones, arc forms, awkward transitions, call and response interaction, or other, he immediately corrects the impression that the first task of the rehearsals was to exclude any one of these approaches. Never, he says, was the goal to forbid any one phenomenon or way of playing. The problem, and methods of correction, were more fundamental than that, he explains, more primordial: “Those things [drone, call and response, etc.] are surface problems that most improvising ensembles deal with, especially when ensembles get bigger. We dealt with them too, sure. But I don’t think that they were really at the core of the actual problem for us. Because you can end up doing a nice drone, and you can have a nice arc form, and it will be absolutely the right thing to do in that situation.” Rainey continues with an explication that gets to the heart of the BSC’s strengths: “The whole idea of playing the piece and then for me to say what had ‘happened’ was part of a much larger process. One of the things that I wanted to do was to build people’s memories for what we were playing. To give them a sense, while they were playing, of a greater period of time. There is an ethos amongst many improvisers that it is important to be ‘in the moment’ all of the time, and in a sense it is, but I wanted that moment to be bigger. The fact that we would play, and that I would then talk about what had happened, was itself part of an impetus to get the players to say to themselves, ‘Ah yes, you can do that, you can open up the frame of the moment and get a more immediate picture of how different phases of the piece interact with each other, and you can use that picture to better understand what you are doing and what you want to do.’ It was a very basic thing that I did to get things started, to try to help people take stock of what they were doing.” Rainey expands on this when recounting the origin of his notion of playing-memory and its interior connection to the compositional elements of collective improvisation. In a revealing comment, Rainey covers this whole skein of interconnected topics when he explains further the influence of Joe Maneri. “Actually I got much of this, in a way, from Joe Maneri. It seems so obvious, but when you witness someone do it with as much depth as Joe, it’s a revelation. I was improvising with Joe during our lessons and we’d be playing for twenty minutes and it would be very complicated — he was an extremely complicated musician — and it was often difficult to decode what he was doing when he was playing. The piece would come to an end and I would be confused, and out of breath, and then he would begin talking in great detail about everything that had just happened, everything that the two of us had just played, and he would say things like, ‘You know, we were doing this A section and we moved to the B section and you heard that, and it was great, and then at some point I started bringing back the A section and you noticed a change, but you didn’t really recognize that it was the A section coming back, so you waffled for a bit until we got to a certain point.’ And my reaction was basically, ‘Wow, (a) you remembered all of that, and (b) you were right, there was a point when I was wondering what was going on, when I had noticed a change, and I knew that I was going to have to do something about it, but I was struggling.’ So I acquired from him this idea that if you tell people what happened, and then you give them a sense of what they may have been thinking when it happened — and usually you are going to be right if you’ve been doing this long enough — and then you give them a sense not only of what they were thinking but where the crisis occurred and what options were available other than the one that they actually chose, then, with that memory and awareness, you can begin to build.” A few points here merit further comment. One would be Rainey’s suggestion that the larger improvisational moment can become a field filled with an elaborate musical architecture. Much electroacoustic improvisation today, when steering away from variations on drone forms (layering, temporal constancy, expositions of density, etc.) or arc forms (e.g. low activity, high activity, low activity again, or the inversion, the hour-glass form), tends to follow a pattern whereby the musical material unfolds according to a string of presents or a sequence of events — a string of present-tense actions, gestures, sounds, reactions, silences, listening, anti-listening, or whatever. The result is a linear sequence of this or that novel sound placed with care and thought, this or that surprise or silence patiently rendered, this or that section featuring juxtaposition and manipulation of intensity, density, dynamics, and so forth, but not necessarily an overall form that is being sought, developed, insinuated, revealed, or other. What Rainey’s discussion indirectly suggests is that one reason for this is that playing- memory seems rarely to have been foregrounded by improvisers, and that, as a result, both formal agility and the on-the-fly facility for elaborating compositional elements are not much discussed publicly — or at best, have become a matter of instinct, intuition, and ‘feel,’ rather than the result of formal control or deliberate creation. Such intuitions and instincts — or what BSC members repeatedly referred to as “natural tendencies” (or in James Coleman’s terminology, “body-time”) are precisely what the BSC have actively worked to undo, rethink, and redeploy. Rainey’s conception of “a larger moment,” of a moment that is bigger and whose duration may or may not last for twenty or thirty or forty minutes (without being primarily a drone, arc, or linear string of presents), brings with it a good deal of potentiality and fresh air for thinking about the formal possibilities still available to electroacoustic improvisation as a practice, genre, or way of playing. 1Autumn Uprising, an annual Boston improvised music festival, took place from 1997 to 2002. It occupies a special place in the history of Boston’s improvised music. Curated first by Dave Gross and later assisted by James Coleman (Taylor Ho Bynum assisted in 2001), the event became a showcase for the area’s musical developments that year. Boston-based musician Steve Norton maintains a website where reviews, schedules, and photographs of the first four years of Autumn Uprising are still available. http://tautology .rednotebook.org/AUhome.html 2The recording session of this large group ensemble resulted in the release from 2000, entitled 8x9, by the Jack Wright Large Ensemble, on John Shiurba’s label, Limited Sedition. Performances from Rainey and Wright’s West Coast tour are available on the Signs of Life CD from 2000, on Spring Garden Music, which also features Matt Ingalls and Tom Djll.  RECONSTRUCTING THE HISTORY AND METHODS OF THE BSC BY AARON P. TATE THE EARLY BSC: HISTORY AND PRE-HISTORY Improvisation of the sort practiced by the BSC began to crystallize in the Boston area in the second half of the 1990s, taking definitive shape in various ensembles formed at the time. There were, of course, similar developments in other global locales too, and some of that history overlaps with the Boston story — the first full-length recording of the BSC, entitled Good (on Grob), recorded August 28, 2001, includes Andrea Neumann and Axel Dörner, both associated with improvisation in Berlin. But since no history of the period has yet been written, for Boston or anywhere else, the occasion of a new release is an opportunity to say something about the contexts and circumstances that gave rise to the group and to its various members’ recordings. What follows is a brief history based primarily on conversations with the group’s members, supplemented where necessary by additional sources. Beginning with the BSC’s formation in 2000, rehearsals took place in the basement of Twisted Village, the now sadly defunct record store located in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Bhob Rainey, the BSC’s founder and leader, guided the octet through its regularly scheduled rehearsals. The earliest practice sessions consisted, according to everyone’s best recollection, in first playing a piece and then discussing the music that had just been played. There were extensive analyses, led by Rainey, of the group’s tendencies, habits, options, and goals, and in some cases the discussions lasted much longer than the piece. At the beginning, Rainey devised exercises for the group to play and to address. Later, when Steve Drury (a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music) encouraged the group to prepare a number of compositions, Rainey brought in the requested pieces, including Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen and later, graphic scores such as Wolff’s Edges and Cardew’s Treatise. The earliest exercises were designed to improve players’ memories and descriptive lexicon, while the Stockhausen text pieces were adapted to assist in rethinking and reframing the ensemble’s typical choices and strengths. Ask any member about the early rehearsals and you will hear, without exception, words like “formative,” “essential,” and “disciplined.” There will be more to say about this below When Rainey got the idea to organize a large ensemble of improvisers, there was already a wide number of projects under way. The formative period in Boston seems to have been between 1996 and 1998 (dating is always somewhat approximate here). Rainey and Mike Bullock were performing in various configurations at the New England Conservatory of Music (hereafter NEC), where both were earning Master’s degrees, Bullock in performance and Rainey in composition. Masashi Harada and Joe Maneri were charismatic teachers at NEC whose influence with students was immense, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. From Maneri, Rainey was learning how to deal with long forms in solo improvisations, while also grappling with Maneri’s conception of 72-tone microtonality. With Harada, a pianist and percussionist whose energy and endurance were legendary, Rainey and Bullock were both exploring free playing. It was not uncommon for Harada to play for four or five hours without pause. Through working with him, Rainey and Bullock were learning to get beyond the limits of their own creative endurance and technique. Bullock’s first time performing free improvisation in public was in fact with Rainey and Harada, on March 28, 1997 at the Zeitgeist Gallery. Greg Kelley was there and remembers well the challenging music, and also recalls witnessing a Good Friday procession pass the gallery outside as the musicians were performing inside. Bullock has written about the moment in his doctoral dissertation, recalling how after making eye contact with people in the parade, which included police cruisers, flashing lights, candles, and a glass coffin, he came to understand how a community devoted to a singular practice can seem unusual to outsiders. Bullock writes that this event clarified his commitment to the music. Not long after the gig, Kelley sat in for Bullock at a performance with Rainey and Harada that Bullock was unable to attend, and shortly after Kelley began playing in various ensembles with Rainey and Harada. This was in early 1998, during the months just prior to Rainey’s and Kelley’s now well known collaboration, nmperign, taking shape, a fact that Kelley evokes in relation to something Harada said at the time of the rehearsals — punctuated by a chuckle, Kelley recalls Harada's words: “This is not going to work, you and Bhob sound terrible together, you shouldn’t play music together.” Kelley and Rainey did of course continue to play, for a number of months, in various configurations, which culminated in a collaboration with Tatsuya Nakatani that would become the earliest version of nmperign. Their first album, entitled 44’38”/5, was recorded in Studio 7A West in Charlestown, Massachusetts during the summer of 1998 and released in November, on Twisted Village Records, just before a six week tour that fall. Around this time, Kelley also began playing with the undr quartet, which had formed in 1998 when Vic Rawlings approached James Coleman, both of whom were then playing in Saturnalia (Jonathan LaMaster’s jazzrock-improv group), with the idea of forming a side project focused on something more spacious. Coleman was intrigued by the suggestion and immediately accepted. Rawlings soon recommended Kelley as a third member, and Coleman agreed, having played with Kelley in a gig arranged by John Voight, the free jazz bassist. Rawlings, Coleman, and Kelley rehearsed a few times and immediately recognized the value of the new possibilities available to them as an improvising ensemble. At one point Rawlings suggested adding Liz Tonne, whom he had known since college. Tonne was also performing with Saturnalia near the end of the group’s existence, as was Kelley, who sat in on a few gigs. When Tonne agreed to play with Rawlings, Coleman, and Kelley, the undr quartet officially came to life. By all accounts the undr quartet, like nmperign, occupies a special place in the pre-history of the BSC. Each member of the quartet speaks with reverence and affection about the opportunities that the group allowed for development as players. Rainey and Bullock also mentioned the group’s significance in conversation with me. As it happens, the undr quartet’s importance to the community is matched in significance only by the scarcity of recordings. There is one short track, “Your Name Was Written in Green,” from the compilation, Lowercase Sound 2002, on the label Bremsstrahlung, but the remastering applied by the label (Rainey and Jason Lescalleet had both done mastering work on the track) left a digital artifact that negatively altered the sound. James Coleman’s solo record, Zuihitsu, however, which was recorded in 2000 and released the following year on Sedimental, includes two short tracks, both gorgeous, by the undr quartet — to this day the only two to receive proper release. Not only for the fact that it contains two undr quartet recordings, but for its documentation of the improvisational language emerging in Boston at the time, Zuihitsu is an important recording and is acknowledged by members of the BSC as ranking among the most significant documents of Boston’s quieter improvised music from the period. Rather than a solo record in the conventional sense, the album presents a series of duos, trios, and quartets comprising Coleman, Rainey, members of the undr quartet, and Tatsuya Nakatani. Musically speaking, the playing is entirely absent of anything resembling free jazz vernaculars or drone or tentative improv fiddling, while at the same time it already shows the full incorporation of silence, space, timbral focus, and sparsely rendered note-values. The playing is often interactive, without being traditionally reactive, and one cannot help but experience with some shock the control Coleman possesses over pitch, dynamics, and gesture — not only a fully formed technique, but a language and syntax for its application to the specific exigencies of the various players with whom he is working. It is also worth pointing out that the tracks are short; the longest is a mere 5:02 minutes long, in contrast to the longer, more temporally distended work typical of much free improv from the period. When heard today, Zuihitsu sounds like not very much else, somehow managing to be equal parts austere and playfully irreverent, an eloquent blast of futurity whose language still feels challenging and perched on the cusp of its time. Not documented on Zuihitsu but of related importance is the trio of Coleman, Rainey, and Nakatani, which performed several times in 1998, including the Autumn Uprising festival of that year.1 According to Coleman, the 1998 AU performance attracted significant attention and comment, much more positive than negative, on account of its quiet and restraint. There were revelatory moments in it as well, to hear Coleman tell it, as when a bowl fell off of Nakatani’s kit and the players sat silently and listened, in the middle of the performance, until it rolled slowly to rest, after which they began playing again. Rainey explained to me that he formed the trio in order to deal explicitly with extremely quiet sounds played at an extremely slow pace. Given Autumn Uprising’s predilection for ‘energy’ music, Rainey had expected the performance to be controversial, but was pleasantly surprised, and in fact quite moved, as were Coleman and Nakatani, when the performance received an extended standing ovation. While living in Chicago in 1999, Rainey continued to tour and to record with Kelley as nmperign, including a 7-week tour in the fall. He also went on an extended sojourn with saxophonist Jack Wright in March of 2000, important for the background to the BSC because it was during the San Francisco stop of this tour that Rainey had a glimpse of what large ensemble improvisation could be (recording with an ad hoc group of seven Bay Area musicians plus Rainey and Wright)2. Rainey called Kelley shortly after to tell him about his plans to form a large ensemble in Boston and learned that Kelley had just organized a similarly large group, featuring Coleman, Rawlings, Bullock, Chris Cooper, and Curt Newton, for a performance at the Zeitgeist Gallery. Thus it seemed that multiple vectors were converging in a sensible way, and so in the year 2000 the BSC was born. After a few rehearsals, the ensemble’s first performance took place in the backyard garden of singer and performance artist Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls) and included, for one performance only, Tucker Dulin on trombone and Curt Newton on percussion. At the time of the first BSC rehearsals, Mike Bullock and Vic Rawlings were already playing as a duo. To date, the group has released two recordings, Fall of Song from 2003 on Bullock’s label Chloë, and On That Which Is Best And The Best That Can Be Done Under The Circumstances on Fargone records in 2006. The specific origin of the duo echoes what one hears mentioned over and over by members of the BSC when describing the early days: dissatisfaction with current ways of playing, eagerness to forge new approaches and to imagine new space. In February of 2000, Bullock and Rawlings went on tour with Jonathan LaMaster as the Saturnalia String Trio accompanied by saxophonist Daniel Carter. Both Bullock and Rawlings were using amplification but soon found themselves more interested in the amplified feedback that they had been previously trying to avoid. Bullock explains, “Vic and I came out of that tour knowing that we wanted something else. We were both hearing alternative ways to organize sound, and by the end of the tour we were both processing our sounds and working with feedback from the amplification, trying to get certain harsh, hard, and block-like sounds, the kind you find on Fall of Song. During the tour we had been hearing all of this very nimble improv-y string music, people fiddling around literally, and we wanted to do the opposite of that, to illustrate the cessation of that, to show the pauses alongside the sound. How that approach directly impacted the BSC is difficult to say, but it is something that we have been doing since 2000.” Bullock and Rawlings were not the only members to explore rawer approaches to improvisation during the early period. The arrival of Howard Stelzer to Boston from Florida in 1998 was yet another event that all BSC members credit with having significantly impacted Boston music, a fact made evident by the number of ensembles Stelzer played in and the key releases on his label, Intransitive Recordings. For example, Stelzer, Rawlings, and Kelley had a trio first called Tulse Luper, later Deer Telephone (both titles drawn from Peter Greenaway films). In performance the trio used a variety of agreed-upon restrictions, including turning chairs over in the gallery and keeping the sound to one density for the duration of a performance, the length of which was decided beforehand and kept by a stopwatch. Chris Cooper’s work under the moniker Angst Hase Pfeffer Nase significantly increased the world’s capacity for joy with the concrète masterpiece from 1999, Beatings With Gimpy Flighted Wings Entrapped By Post-Fence Of Garish-Land, released on Menlo Park. The recording was assembled from several sources, including Cooper’s work on a Serge modular synthesizer in San Francisco, his own developing approach to prepared guitar, and varieties of homemade recordings, all of which were recorded to 4-track and bounced, always with further manipulation, to an 8-track machine. Though Cooper’s earlier history in Caroliner and other projects would require another essay entirely, at the time of the early days of the BSC he was active in many ensembles, including a quartet with Stelzer, Kelley, and Rawlings. In addition, it was Cooper’s aforementioned tape work, bountiful in its playfulness and compositional vision, which brought, Rainey explained to me, a unique influence and touch to the music emerging from the BSC. This brief survey of the early history of the BSC is far from exhaustive and not intended to be — there are, for one thing, the many solo projects of the individual members, too numerous to list here. Listeners familiar with any of the projects mentioned above will be at an advantage when coming to the new recordings, including the ability to identify who is playing and what the history behind that way of playing may be. But one need not know any of this in order to appreciate the music of the BSC, since the music stands exceptionally on its own and, in any case, one can always work in the reverse direction, from the recent BSC recordings back to the earliest examples of any of the ensembles named (provided one is prepared to search far and wide for out-of-print discs and vinyl, a pleasure in its own right). Unlike improv groups that tend to interleave and blur identities, the music of the BSC deploys a kind of modularity, or combinatoriality, that results in an extraordinary complexity in the recorded outcome while allowing the sonic signatures of individual players to be clearly defined. There are sounds occurring in a BSC piece that will be familiar to listeners, say, of nmperign or Howie Stelzer or Vic Rawlings, but these sounds lose none of their vibrancy by being used in both contexts — quite to the contrary, one can learn from Rainey and Kelley’s choices, say, in the BSC when listening to nmperign just as one can learn about aspects of nmperign when listening to the BSC. It is a remarkable corpus, the material that we have from these eight players, and there is no question but that the entire corpus puts us in the position of being able to learn more about the parts by way of the whole, and more about the majestic whole by way of its many challenging parts.