Last week, I had the privilege of seeing some of my friends playing some of the most awesome, experimental, improvisatory music I have ever seen. John Kammerer, one of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, played a set of electronic music then one of my professors, Greg Stuart, played a percussion set with a visiting guest, Ryan Jewell.
John was, essentially, playing his laptop which he does with an incredible degree of artistry and finesse. He used a number of devices to create sounds which he fed through a looping module, amplifying, distorting, and processing them before spitting them back to the audience all in micro-seconds. On his table were some contact-mic’ed serving platters, a circuit-bent child’s toy keyboard, a record playing recorded transcripts of old medical conferences, and some old cell phone ringers (from what I could tell).
Greg and Ryan played an assortment of different percussion instruments and various sundries. Their set was improvised but the two musicians were clearly feeding off of each other’s energy in a way that made it seem as though they had rehearsed. In fact, the two had never even met formally before the concert!
But instead of going into depth about what each set sounded like, I would instead prefer to point out the interaction between these two very different sets. Although one was entirely electronic computer music and the other entirely acoustic percussion sounds, I had the sense that the sounds being created could have been generated by either source. There was something almost electronic sounding about the acoustic set but also something very acoustic sounding about the electronic set. It provided an interesting commentary in my head about the irrelevance of such distinctions as “acoustic” and “electronic” in this kind of music.
While the sounds being made were interesting, the prime agency of this kind of music lies with creativity and openness. At many points in the evening, it felt as though anything could happen. A performer might reach for something, grab it, put it back, and then reach for something else. He might hit a pie pan or a bell or a gong or simply drop something on the ground or there might be feed-back. Someone in the audience might (and did) drop their beer glass sending it rolling it across the floor. And all of it had agency. There was an opening up to possibility on the part of the performers that was contagious and which got taken up by the audience. This happened to such an extent that the differences between audience, performer, and space became irrelevant in the context of the situation.
And then the most incredible thing happened: it ended. Without plan, without fore-warning, the percussionists stopped and looked at each other. And even though it was all unstructured improvisation, it felt as though at that moment it needed to end. And it felt as though somehow we all had some say in that.