Discussion in Spring 2016 conducted by email between Jeb Bishop (trombone) and Clyde F. Smith (dance) regarding a series of improvisational Working Sessions that occurred in the Fall of 2015.
Clyde – Looking back over our emails it looks like we started working together in late September.
I proposed we work together very much like the improvisational dance work I was involved with in the late 70s and early 80s.
We agreed to meet at a specific time and then improvise without much agreement beyond that.
That’s not something a lot of people would be comfortable with but you responded without any hesitation.
Jeb – I was trying to remember exactly when/where the idea of us doing this came up. I found a June 25, 2015 email from you where you say “maybe we should get together and improvise sometime,” but I feel like it came up in conversation before that, maybe that time you came over to Durham and we had lunch at Toast.
I did in fact feel uncomfortable about the idea, but I took that as a reason to do it. I had done very little improvising with dancers and wanted to work more on that situation, which is so different than improvising with (an)other musician(s). Plus the environmental aspect was largely new to me.
C – You also mentioned Merce Cunningham’s approach as something that gave you a way of approaching this project.
In particular his willingness to have the movement, music and scene elements simply coexist rather than being directly related.
That worked for me because I didn’t really want to dance to music nor did I want the music to follow me.
So it seemed we often simply began individually, at the same time and place, and found connections that weren’t necessarily obvious.
We certainly got connected enough to find mutually agreeable endings!
J – Yes and for me other antecedents were Derek Bailey’s work with Min Tanaka — their recording Music and Dance, Bailey’s liner notes to that recording — and the work of my friends and colleagues Jason Roebke (bassist) and Ayako Kato (dancer), sometimes also with Josh Berman (cornetist), in the Art Union Humanscape project.
Also, for the site-specific aspect, the environmental/outdoor improvisational work, documented on video, of NYC-based trombonist Ben Gerstein and colleagues.
Years ago some of us in Chicago did some improvising along with films at concerts at Columbia College and there we very deliberately took the stance of parallel coexistence without overt interaction — in fact we improvised without looking at what was happening on the screen. We did this even with some film that had real narrative structure.
Earlier in 2015 I’d done a session of improvising with a group of musicians and dancers in Brest, France, part of a long-term collaboration they’ve been working on there. That was indoors and the parameters of for example starting location of musicians in the space were more set than anything you and I did. There I found that at times I felt it was ok for there to be more overt interaction/causal relationship between the music and the dance. But at many times also I just didn’t worry about that being a factor.
Of course, in that situation the fact that there were multiple musicians also always gave me something to work with in a way that isn’t the same when it’s one musician and one dancer.
Beginning at the Rose Garden
J – At our first session, the immediate issues I felt were, I guess, three:
1. how to choose a space
2. the question of audience — can anyone see/hear us? how does that affect what we do?
3. most basically — what do I do, concretely? What sounds does this particular situation motivate me to make? Why/how?
C – We first met at the Rose Garden in Raleigh, NC.
Finding a space to meet was always an issue though we were blessed with good weather!
I imagined we would revisit spaces in which we worked but though we returned to the Rose Garden we never actually worked in the same spot more than once.
I needed a specific environment in which to work. For me the sessions were very much influenced by their site specific nature.
I think I’ve always needed something to work off of in my dance improvisation work. Since I rejected dancing to music from pretty much the beginning I needed a space and often other performers to play off of.
But we found the spaces fairly easily.
I remember after a few sessions you began to note the need to have spaces where the sound was reflected back to you. Or at least appreciating those spaces more for giving you a stronger sense of what you were doing.
But not having an audience may have been the biggest thing. While you’ve often improvised in front of audiences I’ve done very little of that and was often disappointed with the way it changed the dynamic.
Having an audience for improvisation made it difficult for me to improvise. Instead I begin to wonder about questions such as, “Is this interesting?”
Such questions destroy my train of thought which is less a locomotive than a meandering brook that can easily backtrack and go uphill yet dries up when observers are present.
We did have random observers but, except for our final appearance at CAM, they were mostly just wandering by.
I remember when we began to seek out locations at NC State, some of which had more passersby. I was briefly disappointed that no one pulled out their smartphones and made videos which might have appeared online!
But I was mostly happy at not attracting gawkers.
J – One of my first decisions was to not worry about whether what I was playing was “interesting” in the way that I would worry about that if I was playing a solo set in a more concert setting, for example.
One of the first things I noticed was that we both tended to make the work somehow “about” or “addressed to” some object in the environment — a tree, a rock, a bench.
I realized I had to deal with the element of my own physical movement also — I certainly didn’t want to just stand in one place and play. That’s where the material I read in Terpsichore in Sneakers helped me, especially ideas about dance just being based in ordinary movement, especially walking.
The fact of the two of us moving in each others’ vicinity sometimes produced more explicitly interactive event sequences. It was easy to go toward a kind of play with that sometimes.
Yes, finding spaces where I got more acoustic feedback changed what I did noticeably. I guess it gives me more of an immediate, I want to say tactile, sense of the details of the sound, including the sounds produced by movement.
After our last session at NCSU I think you said something about it moving for you more in a performance art direction and I thought that was an interesting distinction although I wasn’t sure exactly where or how you were drawing that boundary.
C – I think it’s cool that Terpsichore In Sneakers affected your work. It makes sense given that so much of it was about the use of pedestrian or everyday movement in a dance concert setting. And also of improvisational work that included more everyday movement.
My idea in suggesting you read that and that I reread it was motivated by my wanting you to understand what influenced my improvisational work. Most of what I did in our sessions traces back to that book, which I read as an undergrad dance major in the late 70s when those ideas were incredibly influential to myself and other young choreographers I knew.
It was interesting when we did interact. Generally it seemed we tried not to do too much of that.
I remember once at the Rose Garden when I was working on some benches. There was some movement back and forth as you started to get on them but you stepped back more or less. It turned out afterwards that you felt I was playing at keeping you off the benches and you didn’t want to get into that specific dynamic. Or something like that.
I also remember your saying after one of our sessions at the NC State Campus that when I started vocalizing in relationship to your playing that you fell into a music improvisation headspace that you hadn’t realized was so clearly defined.
I think discovering things we tend to do was an important part of the process for both of us. As was deciding if those were things we wanted to do or, once brought to conscious attention, were things to change, avoid or leave behind.
I don’t recall the performance art statement exactly. But I was likely referring to things like throwing the rocks which was another auditory element that day when I started vocalizing.
For me the difference was that I’d been focusing on movement before that point and that both vocalizing and playing with objects came more out of performance art works I’d created in the past. I think it had more to do with how I compartmentalize my own projects rather than any clearcut distinction between dance and performance art.
J – Another issue that comes to mind is the question of documentation — we talked about getting someone to video some of the working sessions, but had logistical problems finding someone who could do it. It probably wouldn’t have been too hard to just set up a camera to capture sound/image but on the other hand the idea of it being really ephemeral, a one-time thing that happens and is really gone after that, appeals to me.
Of course we did get some photo documentation of our CAM appearance, but even that leaves out a lot since it doesn’t capture sound or movement.
C – I’m really disappointed we didn’t get video documentation and wish I’d push harder on getting someone there.
I didn’t push too hard because we didn’t know you’d be moving to Boston so suddenly.
It makes me sad that we have so little documentation.
Most of my work is undocumented or not publicly accessible. I suggested this dialogue because I want to change that as much as possible.
I don’t want my work to disappear which would otherwise be the case once the last living witnesses die.
Moving to NC State’s Campus
J – I felt better somehow about the sessions at NCSU. For one thing they seemed like taking a small step in the direction of having an audience, which looking back now I guess I have to say focuses what I do. There was also a little bit of a prankster or mildly confrontational element — two old guys doing this weird quasi-guerilla art activity without authorization (not that the authorities gave a shit) in the midst of NCSU community people coming and going. We’d get the occasional favorable glance/smile or thumbs-up, but most folks sort of rushed on by with heads down or gazing intently at their devices. Maybe they felt embarrassed for us! Or felt some kind of uneasiness or fear of engaging us in any way, kind of like not looking at the crazy Jesus guy ranting on the brickyard (though I did once unwisely get into a conversation with such a guy).
Anyway, acoustically I was happier over there, in the sort of boxy brick enclosed space at the Design School, and even more, in the little concrete/brick corner next to the back utility door of some building near the NCSU Free Expression (ha ha) Tunnel, a nondescript space near a dumpster and trash can, with a little bench facing nothing, the kind of place an employee would sit and smoke a cigarette after taking the trash out. That space especially effectively created a little stagelike area past which people would walk for a limited defined time duration on their way somewhere else, and for that little window they’d be exposed to us. The acoustic reflection properties of that space varied depending on where I stood and which way I pointed; the time of day was such that there was an interesting shadow line to use; there was a corner Clyde could situate himself around or not; a bench was a useful object in many of our sessions. The proximity to the refuse pleased me as well, for some reason.
C – I liked our explorations of NCSU’s campus because they did bring in more architectural elements. I like working in more natural settings as well but I don’t feel my work is about relating to nature so much as relating to built environments. It’s nice to have something fixed to play off of.
I didn’t ever have a sense that anyone noticed us since I’m near-sighted and work without my glasses. So I didn’t pick up on small responses except for one you mentioned at the time.
The back of the building space you describe was quite nice. I wasn’t particularly drawn to or repulsed by the trash. I like the enclosed sense yet there was plenty of room and the sun was shining directly on part of the area. Along with the benches that gave me a lot to work with.
In fact I did a lot with shadows during that session which is working with a very natural element, the sun’s light. In many ways that combination of elements did suggest potential for a future move to the stage.
I also liked having small rocks and bits of gravel to throw around. The acoustic qualities of the space amplified the noise of the rocks bouncing on the ground. Perhaps that got me into vocalizing. Perhaps it happened in reverse.
I wasn’t particularly excited about having people nearby. The fact that it felt like they were ignoring us was helpful for me at that stage. Most of my improvisational work was done without an audience and the final most intense stages of that work way back in the day led to projects designed to allow for improvisation with the only audience present that of documenters who were welcomed to work along with us.
So that was a good transition into the possibility of an audience. I think of what we had as an ambient audience. Present but not too intrusive!
I do remember that the vocalization got us into interacting in a different somewhat more direct way. You said that you found yourself immediately dropping into an exchange more like you’d do in music settings.
What was different about working with me the rest of the time and working with other musicians?
J – That one time when you moved into the very simple vocalization was interesting to me because I reacted to so immediately and automatically that it reminded me of the differences between working with you and working with other instrumentalists/musicians. It’s not surprising that after years of doing that kind of activity in countless performances I’d have developed reflexive responses, but it was almost like a laboratory demonstration of the fact that I have those reaction/interaction structures in my listening/performing apparatus.
So that means that what was happening the rest of the time was outside that in a way, which is very interesting. A real unfamiliarity there, and thus also a certain degree of anxiety/reticence, which I tried to acknowledge and then set aside.
But it’s hard to characterize exactly the difference between working with you and doing an improvised music performance. Much of the time I didn’t even observe or pay attention to what you were doing. I think I had an idea that the totality of the particular setting would influence my actions, and I tried to let my mind stay out of the way of that. Hard to do.
At CAM Raleigh
J – After those sessions at NCSU, and after suddenly learning I’d be moving to Boston soon, the next phase was our CAM appearance.
I’d had some experiences at the DJ/”kissa” nights at CAM, including being the DJ myself for one, and had met CAM director Gab Smith in that context, but it was Clyde’s idea to propose bringing our work to CAM during one of their First Friday events.
This introduced a lot of elements differing significantly from what we’d been doing up to that point — maybe most significantly the presence of a large built-in “audience,” or at least group of potential perceivers/interactors.
There’s a lot we can say about that, but for now I want to highlight something Clyde wrote in an email when we were discussing the idea with Gab — you characterized our work as being
“A process which is not about creating alternative stages but exploring space and time in the context of human activity”
— which I thought was a really insightful concise articulation of what our activity was turning out to be about.
C – That was a catchy phrase!
“A process which is not about creating alternative stages but exploring space and time in the context of human activity”
The CAM event was important for so many reasons.
Pitching our idea to Gab, which we did by email, gave us a chance to articulate what we were doing to someone who hadn’t been in on our discussions nor had she seen what we were doing.
The space which had multiple levels and areas of activity both inside and out was ideal for us.
Instead of putting us on a stage it gave us the opportunity to find little nooks and crannies to do our work though it also included working in a gallery space.
I was really intimidated by the idea of having an audience at that point. It felt premature in some ways but worked out very well.
It was important that we weren’t announced and weren’t scheduled. I needed that sense of simply appearing and working much as we had at the Rose Garden, in the park across the street from the Rose Garden and at various locations at NC State’s campus.
I think the fact that people mostly glanced at us and kept moving was also important for me.
You’re very used to doing your thing in front of an audience. I’ve performed for many audiences but very rarely as an improviser and was mostly disappointed with those experiences.
So Gab’s openness to our somewhat vague plans, working in an exceptionally suitable space and having an audience that was in many ways the “ambient audience” we were used to was key to what for me was a very successful event.
J – I wonder if there would ever have been a time to move to something like the CAM event that wouldn’t have felt premature. It introduced a number of elements previously not part of what we’d been doing. Such as: the fact of being indoors (much of the time), the general frame of an “art event” within which we were working, the need to consider and coordinate with other performers at CAM that night (musicians, DJ), and of course the presence of many more people, disposed by the circumstances to regard what we were doing as a performance to be taken in.
Gab was really open to whatever we wanted to do and that was great, we really had a free hand to do whatever we wanted.
After a sort of ‘warm-up’ event in a semi-separate darkened gallery downstairs, we moved out into a larger space that felt more exposed. That was where we had the one guy who really stopped and listened / watched, and discussed it with us afterwards.
Then we had the session on the sidewalk outside the large window onto the street. This felt the most playful in a way. I liked that we were on the other side of a glass barrier that probably removed the sound aspect of it for the people inside the building. And I found the sidewalk conducive to some interaction with passersby in a way that otherwise never happened in our sessions. Also the sound of the trombone reflecting from the brick wall of the warehouse across the street was enjoyable.
Then, back inside, we had the session in the corner of the landing on the stairs going down. That felt more intense and darker somehow. I liked that it was a location where people were very much on their way from one place to another. Though I did notice one person at least stopping and watching us for a while.
After that one, if I remember right, you felt like you’d given what you had to give for that evening and (despite some gentle prodding from me) we called it a night after that.
C – I think it was a good thing to be pushed into a setting with more of an audience due to the timeline created by your leaving the area. I also think it was a good thing that the audience even at CAM was, as I’ve noted about other settings, an “ambient audience.” Some people stopped and watched but mostly we were this thing that people walked by or barely noticed. Part of the environment that got about as much a look as most pieces of art at a crowded art opening.
That took pressure off me and I was able to stay focused on what I was developing throughout our sessions.
I knew I wanted to stay with an internal thread of investigation that was also often quite minimal and sometimes involved quite pedestrian movement. I wanted to move beyond the pressure of feeling that I had to be interesting or even entertaining to observers though I actually want to eventually be both those things without giving up this internal progression.
But I really didn’t recognize just how pedestrian much of my work was until I saw the handful of photos from the gallery setting that my dad, Clyde Smith, took or the brief video snippet outside taken on a cellphone by Renee Foster.
I imagine that the section we did in a stairwell was, on the one hand, the most minimal in that I basically spent the time trying to wedge myself into a crack-like space in the wall, and the least pedestrian, in that the movement was anything but everyday.
By the time we’d finished three sections, which was our typical approach in our other sessions, I really was done.
And I was glad we hadn’t made any real announcements because that was fairly early in the overall evening based on CAM’s hours.
One of the main reasons I remember you suggesting we do more was the possibility of one of the few people we’d talk to showing up. That was an external motivator I did not want to take into account. Since they ended up not showing it was all to the good for me.
I think also your live performance experience with improvisation predisposes you to longer sets. But it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if we’d continued. Sometimes going beyond what one want to do opens up new possibilities.
But I’d had enough for one night and my focus was getting dispersed by that point. I also felt like we had gotten what we came for.
Looking back on our occasional discussions of how we might take this more directly to an audience in a theater setting or in a less busy gallery setting I think the CAM event was ideal for me to make that transition.
Even though the documentation was quite limited it opened me up to expanding what I’m doing to include audience expectations without breaking the chain of internal investigation. And that’s a good thing I think.
But it also makes me want to do more work away from an audience but with someone documenting the work. Better yet would be someone who also conducted their work, ideally video, along with us in a way that goes beyond simple documentation.
J – “Sometimes going beyond what one want to do opens up new possibilities.”
I think I was thinking of gigs I’ve done where you get to the most interesting stuff at the end, when you’ve run out of things you ‘know’ or feel like you don’t have anything left, but have to find something anyway. But maybe it’s not a perfect analogy.
Yes, documentation of any future work would be important!
Update: Photos of the initial session at CAM Raleigh are now available.