Improvising Collectivity: A Discussion with Members of the Catalytic Sound Cooperative

Brock Stuessi

Catalytic Sound is an online cooperative of 30 musicians working in the broad field of creative improvised music. The project started in 2011 as a musician-owned online record store set up by Chicago-based reedist Ken Vandermark, Norwegian drummer
Paal Nilssen-Love, Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, and German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Over the last ten years, the project has grown in both size and scope to represent a formidable international group of improvising musicians and create new models of collective economic support. The most pronounced of these economic efforts is a subscription service that began in 2018 that has since led to the development of an independent streaming service for the Catalytic Sound musicians called the
Catalytic Soundstream. 

Over the last two years, I studied the Catalytic Sound cooperative for my masters thesis in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As part of the culmination of my research, I organized the “Improvising Collectivity” panel discussion in June 2021. Of the many musicians I interviewed for my research, I chose Bonnie Jones, Luke Stewart, and Ken Vandermark to represent the cooperative in the panel discussion for the diversity of performance practice, experience, organizational work, and associations they represent.1

Jones is a Korean-American improviser who works primarily with electronics and text. She was a founding member of the Transmodern Festival and CHELA Gallery and is currently a member of the High Zero Festival collective in Baltimore, MD. Stewart is an upright and electric bass player and music organizer working between Washington DC and New York City. His regular ensembles include Irreversible Entanglements, Heroes are Gang Leaders, Ancestral Duo, Six Six featuring guitarist Anthony Pirog, and experimental rock duo Blacks’ Myths. Vandermark has worked continuously from the early 1990s onward, both as a performer and organizer in North America and Europe, recording in a large array of contexts, with many internationally renowned musicians.

Below, I present a condensed version of our discussion in which we discuss the meaning of creative improvised music, alternative space, Catalytic Sound, music streaming, and community-building practices. 

BSWe are now ten years into the history of Catalytic Sound and it feels as if the project has hit a stride of sorts. What started as an online record store, Catalytic Sound has now become a collective of 30 musicians that aspires toward doing something much larger than selling records. While it is clear the money generated by projects like the membership service offer economic support for the musicians in the collective, I am wondering how you see Catalytic Sound relating to a broader scene and potentially making an impact beyond the musicians who are directly involved?

LSWell, Catalytic Sound has done a very important thing by intervening in the contemporary context of how most people in the privileged world listen to music. Whether we are talking about streaming on Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, or Bandcamp, Catalytic Sound has created what is, as far as I know, the first truly independent, artist-run, music streaming service with the Catalytic Soundstream. If you are a new label emerging today, you are probably going to host and sell your music on Bandcamp. With the Soundstream, Catalytic Sound has taken a step toward creating its own Bandcamp, so to speak: its own independent platform. That is an example of what true independence can look like in the contemporary music technology ecosystem. It has gotten to the point where if you want to be truly independent, yes, you have to create your own streaming service. I hope Catalytic Sound is able to make an impact beyond itself as an example of what independence looks like in 2021.

BJThere is something truly distinct and valuable about having the capacity to create your own pool of data that you as a musician are in control of to a certain extent. We give our music to Bandcamp and Spotify, but we do not own any of the data they collect around that music. In doing so, we basically give those corporations permission to make money off the user data generated by our work. It is interesting for me to think about this in the sense of nonlinear dynamics. The way these dynamics work is that an emergent pattern or energy begins to form around a certain set of actions. In the case of the Soundstream, one potential way the energy or data of the system might be utilized is in generating algorithmic relationships between people who are on the platform and those who are not or are featured sparingly. In this way, we would be using the data not as an object to sell to advertisers but as a means of deepening relationships between our music and the music that is to come.

KVTo add to what Luke and Bonnie are saying, this question of Catalytic Sound’s significance beyond the 30 musicians involved is something that became clear to me over the course of the festival we did in July 2020 and the panel discussions that were a part of that event. Over the course of those discussions, it became clear to me that the goal of Catalytic cannot be to become a gatekeeper or tastemaker for what “this music” is about. Instead, we needed to very deliberately think about how to motivate interactions with the scene in ways that expand the idea of what Catalytic Sound is. What we are trying to work toward now is this idea that Catalytic Sound is a model—not the model—that can be utilized in a variety of other situations and circumstances. We are collectively considering ways the cooperative can play an active role in helping to encourage the formation of other cooperatives and self-determined organizations of musicians in a variety of contexts. We are excited about the idea of those cooperatives being connected and sharing resources and ideas in some way. As such, we are working on the next version of the streaming platform, which will hopefully incorporate feedback we have received from users and some of the ideas Bonnie has suggested above. For example, one of the big pieces we are trying to develop is a rotating selection of guest artists that features work of musicians who are not in the collective but who we can invite in to have a guest space in the streaming service for a month or so. They will be able to choose what of their work they want to feature and be paid for it.

While part of this is motivated by a desire to not be a gatekeeper, we are also contending with the reality that Catalytic Sound can only become so big and still function effectively. Thirty people feels like the largest the collective can be right now for economic and organizational reasons, so the solution in our eyes is to experiment with motivating the creation of more collectives that can exist in a more self-determined way. This, again, is part of the larger history of self-determination by groups of musicians we have been talking about, but it is also a part of the history of a music industry which has never been very pro-musician. It is supportive of musicians who are creating the work that is then sold by that industry for a great profit, and we are seeing that at extreme levels with the current state of music streaming. You do not have to do very much research to realize that for 99 percent of people producing the content for a service like Spotify to exist, the numbers just do not add up to anything near fair payment for their labor. In the face of that, our greatest hope is that Catalytic Sound can be a model of something better and more sustainable for musicians, in whatever context.

BSI am interested in the concept of “this music” you gesture towards. The cooperative uses the term, creative music, on its website and social media accounts to describe itself. How does that term resonate with you or describe the musicians and music Catalytic Sound represents? How do you describe the ways you are connected to other musicians in the cooperative?

BJI have thought about this question a lot over the last 20 years—since I first found out about what might be called creative improvised music or experimental music. I was in Baltimore; it was 1999 at what I think was the second-ever High Zero Festival in a basement venue called the 14-Carat Cabaret. I saw this amazing set by the upright bass player, Vattel Cherry. It totally blew my mind, and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is it. This is the music that I’ve been waiting to hear my whole life.” I managed to see the rest of the festival as well, and that experience really became my origin story for improvised music.

Since then, I have often thought, “What is this thing? How do you describe it?” Often—as improvised musicians are known to do—I got into a bar fight with somebody over what is or is not this thing we call improvised music. However, with the reading and thinking I have been doing to structure my sort of theoretical and creative practice, I have come to feel that creative improvised music as it pertains to me personally—who lives in my body and who inhabits my world—is a gesture of refusal. It is a refusal of a certain model of product. It is a refusal of a certain specification around types, qualities, and values of music and the ways in which it should be produced by any person, whoever that person might be. It is a refusal of even being a musician to a certain extent, insomuch as it is refusing an idea of what or who a musician is, or what the value of training is, or what the value of having certain access to a certain set of tools is. I think that’s where I am at now. I feel good about that because if I look back at my personal history as a musician, at every step—as an act of self-love even—was this act of refusal: to refuse to be constrained to a certain way of thinking about the kinds of music that I felt I wanted to make.

LSThis question of creative improvised music is something that we members of the collective have debated as a community. For me, it is a term that connects to a legacy, a history, and a tradition. With Catalytic Sound, I can see how that term connects to the cooperative’s founding of sorts in Chicago and the ways the term, creative music, was first used by the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] to describe a particular approach to making music. Though improvisation as an action is the root of the thing, I think the power that lies in the artistic approach of improvisation—especially as related to this question of creative music—is the idea that one creates something that can only be in existence at one particular moment in time: never again and never before. Because of this relationship to time, improvisation is an artistic approach that is particularly poised to create change: personal change, social change, artistic change, and spiritual change. I think that in the legacy of the tradition I have named, the music is a challenge for artists, for audiences, for people at large to see a possibly new state of being. The possibilities—as Bonnie has said, opened not by being necessarily trained, but instead by developing one’s acumen based on passion, curiosity, and imagination—constitute a revolutionary mindset. And this mindset is a kind of collective, focused freedom. This mindset manifests and unifies Catalytic Sound in the ways we are all passionate, dedicated, focused, and rigorous with the work that we do. That work often straddles a variety of traditions and discourses, but it does not necessarily have the prerequisite of being part of a system—it is open. The approach to the music reflects the mindset of a community that is poised to be open, not to say that everyone is open, but it is a mindset that suggests a freedom and openness within oneself.

KVBonnie and Luke covered an immense amount of territory. I latched on to the ideas of refusal and of freedom they each presented, which may seem contradictory on the surface, but I feel those two concepts really work in tandem in the context we are talking about. I would refuse to adopt many of the beliefs of status quo culture—politics, social mores, anything—for myself. Relatedly, I think the freedom to make my own statement in the face of that status quo is part of who I am and how I feel about things, both on an artistic and a personal level. I feel that if I can act in the way I choose, even if it is a small action, and recognize the same sort of freedom of the people I work with or admire, I am making a political statement of sorts. Because anytime I see someone do something for themselves and contribute something to the whole at the same time, it is empowering. To bring it back to Catalytic Sound, I think it is difficult to identify a common aesthetic. Instead, I see a shared attitude more than anything else. As I look at those 30 musicians, I recognize a kind of individual stance which, using Bonnie and Luke’s terms, has to do with an attitude of freedom and refusal that contributes to pushing us collectively forward.

BSI understand where you are coming from. At the same time, Catalytic Sound is part of a history that Luke has named of musicians—like those in the AACM—organizing together to create structures of support. Obviously, the digital tools Catalytic Sound uses to accomplish this goal are unique, but the organization is still intertwined with a historical need to create alternative institutions—a historical need, perhaps, related to a kind of outsiderism. I am wondering if and how you all view Catalytic Sound within that broader historical context?

LSGoing back to creative improvised music, and taking just the improvised music piece, we have to think about the tool that is improvisation. Improvisation is a tool that is used by every musician, every composer from Bach to John Williams. The sheer process of composition is arguably an improvisatory act. I say that to push back on the idea of the improvisor as outsider you have suggested. If we begin to think about improvisation as one of the most essential human things we can do, then perhaps it will cause us to think about the community of improvised musicians in a different way. And that is to say this community emerges from the same stuff that created jazz, or blues, or orchestral music in the courts of Bavaria, in terms of the raw creative energy that exists to create the music that becomes recognizable as jazz, blues, or orchestral music.

We share a common nexus point; however we are at a juncture where—for many of us at Catalytic Sound—we are trying to fight against those impulses of being stylistic in both a recognizable genre sense and a contemporary, creative improvised music sense. We are constantly fighting against these tropes and preconceived notions of music, and this is the way that we push the aesthetic and the music forward. Where I see Catalytic Sound fitting into this process is in documenting the development in the same way the genres I mentioned above were documented by a record industry. Catalytic is taking the independent documentation that is already happening in this very specific community and promoting it in a collective fashion. These activities are not necessarily against the current music/record industry but are rather happening in spite of the restraints of the current music industry, almost to the point of making that industry irrelevant for this community of musicians. We are collectively creating more and more sustainability for ourselves to the point where the relevancy of being part of that greater system to survive is less of a factor.

BJI totally agree with Luke, and I love that he reminded all of us of the humanness of improvisatory actions. Maybe fifteen years ago, when people used to ask me why I started playing improvised music, the line I would use was: “It just seemed like the most human thing to do.” But I think that also goes back to my understanding of any sense of alternative spaces or institutions or constructions of self or community. For me personally, I do not think it has ever been about an experience of alternative space, as much as that was the place in which I was brought into this world. Speaking frankly as an Asian woman, 99 percent of the world presumes who I am and what I can be. It is something I am constantly aware of, and I do not think anyone who was born in the United States—or comes here—and looks like me escapes that awareness. So, with this question of an alternative space, I agree with Luke that I would not call it an other, or an outside, or even a margin because I am at the center of my own circle. I think that the commitment I made was not to seek the alternative space, but to seek freedom in the space I was already in. If, by acts of refusal, I then carved out what might be alternative models, then all the better for it. And if that alternative model started to function in, again, a dynamic system as an emergent node—a community, a project, a festival, a commune, or whatever—then I could situate myself within that emergent pattern and allow it to be something that other people recognized and understood and moved towards out of their own similar desire to be free. That is how I think about it. Resisting the narrative of seeking the alternative confronts what I think Luke is talking about in the ways the message of the alternative space creates a sort of inside/outside binary. I think we would much rather think about the ways we have always been who we are and have always been cognizant of a certain environment that may pressure us in certain ways.

Despite that, in our actions of refusal, we made room for another thing to start to emerge. Within this concept, Catalytic Sound, the festivals I have been involved with, or even the little group of friends/instant families I had in high school, are all just ways of finding purchase and certain patterns that allow me to be who I really am. That is to say, regardless of the often service-oriented mentality of the project, it does start for me as a kind of act of survival. And this act becomes a very personal thing turned public, in which I have to embrace the space that emerges from my actions and my thinking. I think it is out of that sort of pattern-building that I continually find myself in situations where I am surrounded by people who think, act, work, collaborate, communicate, and have mutuality in the ways that make me feel at home in those spaces.

BSKen, I am interested in your perspective on this and the ways you see your musical practice as having an element of community building to it? As a listener and fan, I have certainly observed certain trends in your career, the ways you funneled the MacArthur award money directly back to the scene for example, as part of a project of community and historical awareness on your part. I am wondering if you see a connection between these aspects of your music practice and what you have worked on for the last ten years with Catalytic Sound?

KVA lot of the communities I have helped to build with my music arose from an organic process. If I think about my connections with the European musicians that have been very central to my musical career, those relationships originate from meeting Mats Gustafsson through John Corbett in Chicago in the mid-nineties. Gustafsson and I were both the same age, we were both very passionate about the same kinds of creative improvised music, rock music, and jazz that we were bringing into our playing, and we just hit it off immediately. He invited me to Sweden to work together, and from that trip I met many other musicians who opened up worlds of opportunity for me.

I put the MacArthur funds back into the music because all the people I was playing with had given me opportunities. With that money, I suddenly had a chance to create similar opportunities for others. What I learned through those years—from the things I got to do, the places I got to play, and the musicians I got to work with—was priceless. In most cases though, the people I was working with came before the MacArthur. Those funds simply enabled the horizon of possibilities to widen. So, in a sense, it was all community-based or connected, but to be honest, I was not thinking about it that way; it just made sense organically. By that, I mean we were operating on a principle of shared resources; whoever had something threw it into the pot, whether that was connections, communication resources, funding, or ideas. Repeatedly, I saw those actions of sharing lead to extraordinary possibilities, and it was not always about money. I mention money because it is a reality of what we do and the society we operate in, especially when you are trying to do something that does not necessarily make a ton of money. But I have seen the concept of being generous and sharing whatever you have create so much good. And the Catalytic Sound endeavor is really another extension of that attitude.

Catalytic Sound started as an online record store for four musicians, and now it is much more of a social and political endeavor that involves 30 people. However, at its core, it is still a distribution service for music and ideas. The platform is an amplifier for the perspectives and self-determined work of the individuals in the collective. In that way, the project is consistent with what I have been doing all along. In the same way as my other musical work, I had no idea this is where we would end up when the project started, but I am so excited by where we are. Like the music community I am a part of, the development of the cooperative has been an organic process. It did not begin with the collective mentality we have now, and those who have joined along the way have radically transformed the situation and possibilities of what Catalytic Sound could be. And only now, looking back on that history, does it become clear to me that what I have largely been concerned with is community. When I met Mats Gustafsson, I was not thinking about community, but that meeting began the formation of this international community that leads, in a roundabout way, to Catalytic Sound and has constantly inspired and motivated me.

Improvising Collectivity: A Discussion with Members of the Catalytic Sound Cooperative