And one musician’s central role in the propagation of a genre
By Ashlin Duncan
A series of musical notes rise into the night, the detuned guitar complementing the soft violin. The genre is difficult to place – as soon as a pattern is identified, the music shifts to something completely different. To the untrained ear, these notes seem like a cacophony of discordant noise. But this organization of chaos has its own genre: free improvisation.
Although the style is relatively unknown to the general public, free improvisation is popular among many musicians. Pioneered by improvisors such as Derek Baily and Evan Parker during the 1960s, the free improvisation movement has since spread all across the world.
Free improvisation is “music without a genre,” so to speak, although it has now become a genre in itself. Whereas typical improvisation is heavily structured, and tied to the key and chord progression, free improvisation intentionally avoids those structures. According to American improvisor LaDonna Smith, “it boils down to style and personal expression.” It is a creative, subjective form of music – and it isn’t for everyone.
For LaDonna Smith, though, it was a perfect fit. Her journey with improvisation began in 1973. At the time, she was a grad student, teaching electronic music and recording. Her improvisation experience so far was limited to jazz, a popular form of improv at the time. But when she was approached by electric guitarist Davey Williams with the idea of improvisation without structure, she was intrigued, and agreed to a practice session.
“It was an immediate click,” LaDonna said. She had found her calling – free improvisation was, as she put it, “composition in the moment,” a natural transition from her studies in music composition. In 1974, LaDonna and Davey formed a tentative ensemble, Transcendprovisation (later shortened to Trans), and invited several other musicians to join. In 1976, they created a record label, TransMuseq, and self-produced their first L.P. record. Over the next decade, the group gained esteem in the free improvisation community.
During this time, Davey began communicating with the first-generation improvisors in Europe. Sending letters and recordings, he established a network of communication. “[The Europeans] started writing about these ‘Alabama backwoods’ … improvisors,” LaDonna said. “It became a kind of a topic of interest, especially in England.” Davey’s efforts paid off – Trans was featured in Music magazine, and eventually, the band was invited to tour across Europe.
Thanks to the work of LaDonna and Davey, among others, free improvisation gradually spread to the United States. She and her ensemble served as a musical bridge between Europe and the US, introducing and popularizing free improvisation among musicians.
Another effect of Davey’s correspondence was the establishment of The Improvisor, a journal dedicated to free improvisation. “There was a need to form an improvisors’ network,” LaDonna said. “Our job was to do the newsletter.” In its initial 1980 publication, The Improvisor was a simple folded brochure, photocopied for distribution. Over time, however, it grew – first into a magazine, then into a journal, and in 1995, it moved to the Internet. “It was sort of a thing that connected us to the world in a way,” LaDonna said.
“The important thing is that people experience [free improvisation] themselves. It can be an unlistenable music, if you’re not used to it.”
The Improvisor featured articles by active improvisors, and later included reviews of cassette tapes and albums. Over time, as the publication grew, it became overwhelming to maintain. At one point, LaDonna was receiving eight to nine CDs per week to review. “We’re not in New York, we’re not in LA, and we’re not in the center of the universe,” she said. “It just got more and more difficult [to continue].”
Partially due to these pressures, the journal was discontinued in 2010, after 30 years of publication. “Nowadays, on the internet, you can access so much more,” LaDonna said. “There’s not much need for [The Improvisor] anymore.” Although the site is no longer updated, the archives still exist online, accessible at the-improvisor.org.
As for Trans, while most of the members have gone their separate ways, the group remains active. “We never have broken up,” LaDonna emphasized. “We’re still together, still releasing CDs, and still playing concerts together.” LaDonna now teaches Suzuki violin in Birmingham, AL, and frequently performs at various improvisation concerts.
Today, free improvisation is everywhere. Improvisation festivals occur all over the world, in places as exotic as Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Approaches vary widely – some musicians are inspired by classical music, some by ethnic music, some by jazz, industrialism, heavy metal… The list goes on.
LaDonna views modern free improvisation as a recreational activity. “It’s an accessible music – anybody can do it,” she said. A group of friends could meet on a Friday evening, and play their instruments, no matter their skill level. “The important thing is that people experience [free improvisation] themselves,” LaDonna cautioned. “It can be an unlistenable music, if you’re not used to it.” But with practice, she reassured, anyone can learn.
Like any musical endeavor, free improvisation takes careful listening and training – and according to LaDonna, that training is absolutely worth it. “In a world now where most of the music out there is canned, it brings us back to our origins,” she said.
You can visit The Improvisor at the-improvisor.org. For a list of TransMuseq discography, visit ladonnasmith.net/catalog To listen to some of LaDonna’s free improvisation solos, check out her site at ladonnasmith.com/listen.