Infinite Resources:
Interview with Scottish Free Improvisation Veteran Maggie Nicols

Maggie Nicols pic #1
Maggie Nicols is a self-described musician, performer, community catalyst, teacher, dancer, singer of songs and sounds, improviser, composer, actor, and activist. With a background in theater and dance, she has incorporated coughing, multiphonics, ad-lib speech, tap dancing, and humorously laying across the stage wearing a t-shirt that says "Who's going to dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians?" She's been performing since the '60s and is now recognized as one of the most unique and innovative vocalists in the European free improvisation scene.
Thanks to Nameless Sound, she's coming all the way from the U.K. to do a show on Sunday, February 15th (8PM) at DiverseWorks, alongside fellow veteran musicians Fred Frith (guitar) and Susan Alcorn (steel guitar). Check out www.maggienicols.com and www.namelesssound.org for more information.

SCR: You've been making music most audiences call "weird" for over thirty years now. To what degree has this changed over the course of your career? Is the average audience more receptive to free improvised music than they were in, say, the '70s? Does audience reception change geographically? For example, are audiences in Europe more or less enthusiastic about avant-garde music than in the U.S.? What about within each continent?
Maggie Nicols: It's contradictory. Improvisation has certainly come of age, and more and more people are open to it, but there's still a lot of resistance, and in the '70s the Feminist Improvising Group got through to quite large audiences all over Europe. There was that feminist solidarity, which meant they hung in there and listened beyond the "weird" and heard the unfolding spontaneous story in sound. We used a lot of improvised humor and words, as well, which helped.

I've always found audiences more receptive generally in the rest of Europe, outside the U.K., but I think that's probably because promoters of music are more open. Where you have promoters who trust the music and have enough subsidy not to be too preoccupied with "bums on seats," then you get great audiences.
Vancouver Jazz festival is a great example. They have such a brilliant range of music and have always promoted and championed the thrilling adventure that is free improvisation. Hence the audience has grown alongside the music.
However, I've found generally, even in Britain, that if you can get the gig and an audience, you're in with a chance of communicating the magic of the music. It keeps you on your toes when it's people who wouldn't normally like what you do.
Besides communicating the magic of music, is there anything else musicians should be doing to promote "weird" music?
Maybe we need to show people that it's not beyond or above them. A lot of people say they don't understand it, yet everyone is born an improviser. It's a basic birthright, as is creativity generally.
Every time we have a conversation, it's improvised. Who writes our scripts? We develop a vocabulary and go from there.
For me, the music is both completely natural and accessible and highly skilled, but it's a skill that anyone can uncover and develop if they want to. Let audiences know it's an adventure.
I remember watching an improvised duo with trombonist Hanes Bauer and guitarist Joe Sachse, and there were so many exciting twists and turns, it was like watching a thriller. I was on the edge of my seat.
On your Website, you wrote, "I draw from the personal and the universal which holds everything we need for spontaneous and structured performance and composition. The challenge is what to express from this infinite resource." Can you talk more about this subject? Do you view your improvisation practice as a metaphor for the experiences that happen in your life?
I think what I mean is that the personal and collective unconscious is an infinite resource which we can draw on. It's up to each improviser whether they channel and express whatever comes up or filter it through a process of discrimination, selection, and rejection, etc. I do both. Sometimes it's censored or refined, sometimes not, but the more experienced you become, the more skillfully you can make instinctive choices in the moment.
I would dearly like my life to be more like improvised music! It's where I'm the most honest, articulate, and free. I also love the balance of individual and collective freedom that happens in group playing; what I call, "in our different rhythms together."
The experiences in my life do also affect my music making.
Considering that free improvisation is a spontaneous composition, is there a musical structure that unfolds more often than others? On drawing upon the infinite resources of the universe, is it fair to say that there's an infinite variety of musical forms that work and communicate in free improvisation?
The only thing I know is that when I trust the creative process, it works, and when I don't it doesn't. Now there's a challenge; the challenge of simplicity which for me is the gateway to genuine complexity, rather than contrived cleverness.
I definitely feel that the potential diversity in improvisation makes it more lasting and sustainable, like dialectical life and nature itself.
There are as many potential structures as there are combinations of improvisers, although of course there are certain patterns some of us may gravitate to more than others depending on a variety of circumstances. However, like with nature and life, there are surprises, upheavals and mutations just when we're getting a bit too coherent and cozy.
You also practice yoga. How has this directly influenced your music? For example, do you believe that certain pitches or scales stimulate particular emotions?
For me, the yoga is more about becoming more vibrant and healthy in mind, body, and emotions; developing greater awareness in every area of my life, which of course makes a difference to how I make music and perform.
There are so many different correspondences between notes and colors, pitch, etc., that I don't follow it too intensely. However, I am composing a song cycle of the Major Arcana in the Tarot that uses one of the systems of color and pitch. It's an enjoyable exercise and a lovely springboard for the creative imagination.
I'd like to explore it more. A yoga teacher gave me a lovely chart of colors and notes and scales which I started exploring, but I lost it! However, in free improvisation, as well as composing and songwriting, I think we're individually and collectively drawn to the sounds that move us and communicate meaning on sometimes quite deep levels. Different sounds say different things to different people and at different times.
Certain notes have resonated more emotionally for me, but as I've become closer to my voice, even notes I didn't get on with so much, in my range, are my friends now. END