Submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the
Master of Arts
in Performance & Literature
Mills College, 2018
Director of Thesis
Reader of Thesis _________________________
Dr. Nalini Ghuman
Head of the Music Department
Dr. Chinyere Oparah
Provost and Dean of the Faculty
Table of Contents
Literature Review…………………………………………………………………………………. 5
An introduction to Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith………………………………..…….. 9 Williams and Smith Meet……………...…........………………………………………………. 11
The Raudelunas Community and Improvisation………………………..………………………13
Developing A Personal Language……………………………………………………………….15
A Departure from the South……………………………………………………………………..19
Strength in a Common Music ……………………………………………………………...….. 21
Self-reliance……………………………………………………………………………………. 22 Contributions to a Growing Movement...………………………………………………………. 24
Furthering A Sense of Community..…...……………………………………………………….. 26
The Importance of Their Work and Where They are Now……………………………………... 29
Beginning in silence, holding only an instrument, listening within, observing a point for departure into the inner world of sudden creative expression, tapping the well to draw out a first sound in a musical exploration, that sound which then will be observed faithfully, and which will then move with a life of its own into the next, and the next, growing naturally along an undetermined path, to be noticed as music becomes.
The point of departure is the chance for anything in improvisation; we release from controlling the moment and allow for anything to happen. It’s an endless source of complete exposure to the sounds of the moment, and to the actions of others who might be playing. Free improvisation is a meeting point for departure, an attempt at something that creates mutual bonding for all involved, and an ideal state of action. We can’t capture the exact point of such an undefinable form because the moment something becomes commonplace it moves on to another state. Through this point of view free improvisation may be seen as an endless movement for change and creativity.
“It also resembles some sort of massively eccentric folk music, being highly adaptable to even the mostad hoc of unrehearsed situations. In any event, as a means of making music, free improvisations tends towards musical forms that are far too changeable to categorize by sound. This is to say that improvisation is a goldmine of kinetic irony. It can also be a spiritual thing.
The act of free improvisation is beyond the grasp of any identifiable set of standards maybe other than listening. It seems it is always up to the musicians’ intuitions. The closest we have come to really defining this music is the act of recording because it has allowed us to document music making and place it in a point in time. Free improvisation has always been happening, probably since the dawn of time when some cave dwellers maybe decided to bang a stick against a wall and someone joined in. However, documentation has left us with an outline of movements in music. One such movement that played a role in the development of free improvisation took place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a rural town centered almost exclusively around the university and football, and, an unlikely place for an art movement to find its beginnings. Here, free improvisation found a home that would become the central focus of many individuals within the community. Two key figures in this movement are Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith. Their improvisation has been well-documented throughout the almost thirty years that they have been recording their work, collaborating with countless other artists and musicians. However, their work also expands out beyond music into other art forms. Little has been written on their origins in the Tuscaloosa art community, and the impact they have had in establishing free improvisation as an art form. Through interviews with these two extraordinary artists, I will attempt to shed light on how they came to be working in the field of improvisation, and what led them to establish such a unique and vibrant scene in their home town and beyond.
In my interviews with Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith the overarching ideas that contextualized their work are represented by the concept of community, history, and perspective thought. These concepts connect Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith to the larger discourse on free improvisation. Though they are important musicians in free improvisation as a whole, the concentration of this paper is a community of musicians who used universal concepts and customized them to create something different. During this time, Anne LeBaron (see appendix) another important member of the Tuscaloosa community has since academically framed the importance of surrealism in context of the community itself. Anne LeBaron argues that the approach to these concepts were unique to this community and Davey and Ladonna, impacting their music in a very real way.
The formation of a group of people into a community can be a defining moment in music as in any other sphere of activity. It highlights the social perimeters that groups and individuals share amongst themselves. Improvisation as a practiced musical form takes roots in the community that creates it.
“One of the first models for ensemble performance that presents itself is that of the social contract: The collective is no more than a convergence of individuals who, as individuals first,choose one at a time to join a group that offers benefits (in our case musical) that expand what the individuals could create alone, in exchange for a corresponding reduction in individual or autonomous freedom.
Community can serve as a grounds for the individuals to develop that have gathered together. While one might have to give up “autonomous freedom” it can be place for ideas to grow and evolve into other forms. It can be a social stability for anyone involved.
“Qualitative inquiry suggests four broad characteristics of musical improvisation: we argue that improvisation is unique as a social, spontaneous, creative, and accessible artistic practice. Social, in the sense that group improvisation involves the creation of music through the idiosyncratic contributions of two or more individuals, each interpreting and musically responding to the playing of the others.
The social context through which improvisation grows informs itself is a unique identifier of various communities. —an interconnected link that begins to generate an identity.
“Any individual’s musical contribution is impromptu and is tailored to or dependent on the sounds, rhythms, and tonalities heard from accompanying musicians. (Bastien and Hostager 1988: Mazzola and Cherlin 2009) Since all have input into the overall sound – into what gets played and how – the creativity in improvisation can best be seen as essentially social, rather than being attributable to or located within a single individual.
The social as a concentration of improvisation can then serve as a model for community. A place where ideas can be carried out amongst like-minded people. Also important is the disbanding of these communities. When they break apart ever-expanding paths of individuals are created, moving in new directions.
Inevitably, in a music which relies so heavily on invention and for which the feeling of freshness is essential, there is a gradual using up of these resources. At the point when this becomes unmistakable, when the indefinables are defined and the mysteries solved, most groups disband and their members look for fresher, more fruitful alliances.”
The community that formed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the late 1960’s and early 70’s followed a similar path. The direction they chose was a collective that resulted in many artistic endeavors that expanded out from their community. Anna LeBaron, on this community:
We share a common background, having all been involved in the hotbed of creative energy lurking in the crevices of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during the early 1970’s.
It was a point of departure for people finding themselves interested in something that was not available in their normal everyday lives.
A look at historical context can help frame the subject within a larger picture.
As a prime site for this examination, I will consider aspects of the histories, musical directions, methodologies and historical reception of two experimental music communities which emerged at around the same moment in time: The European “free jazz” or “free
improvisation” movement, an international development that spanned the continent, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which emerged from
Chicago’s racially segregated, all-black South Side.
The two movements in improvisation serve as a wider context for what was happening in the music.
By 1965, these two distinct musical avant-gardes, based on different continents and unaware of each other, yet sharing important characteristics, goals and acknowledged musical antecedents, were in the process of crystallization.
The Tuscaloosa art movement that came later places it within the framework of both European “free jazz” and the AACM. The movement in Alabama follows after and takes many influences from the two collectives. It was a jumping off point for the community to explore their own identity with free improvisation.
Our collective awareness of the first-generation European improvisers, thanks to the recordings produced by Incus and FMP, was crucial for our morale, as there was no audience to speak of for this kind of music at that point in time in an Alabama university town obsessed with football and fraternities. The knowledge that kindred spirits across the ocean were making music in a similar vein was immensely empowering. 
A largely undocumented movement, the community has a unique set of ideas and perspectives just like the European “free jazz” and AACM collectives. Anne LeBaron comments,
The artistic underground in Tuscaloosa in the 1960s and 1970s has yet to be documented and remains ripe for an extensive critical examination. However, this brief portrait sets the stage for the milieu in which Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith hooked up with one another, initiating an intensive development of their unique musical signatures.
Williams and Smith were directly involved in this movement; although, the artistic “artistic underground in Tuscaloosa” has not been documented. The large body of work that grew from their experience in Tuscaloosa played a key role in the history of that movement. They have continued to recorded and produce work that has influence from this community. Historical context is important because it serves to frame Davey and LaDonna within a larger picture and their on going contributions.
Points of view can define how we relate to the world and develop a sense of how we relate to it. Thoughts and ideas can affect entire groups of people to change in many different ways. Surrealism especially had a role in shaping thought in 20th century.
The surrealist movement began in Paris shortly after World War I, fueled by the explosion that was Dada.…This was a call to search for hidden sources of inspiration in the dream, the unconscious, and myth, but to pursue these sources with a sense of purpose and a quasi-scientific mode of investigation that would allow the vagaries and anomalies of the imagination to influence and be correlated with real events, objects, and people.
Surrealism has been a powerful jumping off point for all of the creative arts. Andre Breton a founder of surrealism describes it as,
Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
The notion of “psychic automatism” was very important to the early surrealists because it was a way out of having any controlled thought. It was a way to explore the unconscious and manifest that in the physical world. Another important aspect is collage, which played an essential role in the surrealist’s process.
Surrealist methods of collage became the visual parallel to automatism. Originating from the French word coller, it means literally “pasting, sticking, or gluing” techniques used by artists for centuries. Only in the twentieth century, however, did collage begin to function as a structure of juxtapositions.
What was expressed superseded the means of expression; the represented object “play[ed] the role of a word” (Aragon  1965, 44).
Other collage forms such as the cubists, literally cutting and pasting materials to construct a larger piece of work. It provided a much broader approach were almost anything could be used as a surrealist collage.
Within music, free improvisation can be seen as a parallel to surrealist ideas. The role of automatism is used to generate spontaneity in performance. It can form the base of free improvisation which can lead in any direction. Automatism also creates the notion of collage because anything can be used when working with the function of thought.
Automatism, the alloy that welded the infrastructure of surrealism, has its most direct musical parallel in free improvisation. I define this as non-idiomatic improvisation embodying a unity of mind and action: musical concept and performance take place simultaneously. In accessing the unconscious by the most direct and immediate means, non-idiomatic musical improvisation might elicit an even speedier transfer from the unconscious into sensory product (sound, in this case) than either visual or literary automatism.
The approach to “non-idiomatic” improvisation is especially important to the community in Tuscaloosa. Their approach to free improvisation is wrapped very strongly in the notions of surrealism. Anne LeBaron writes extensively on the community that she was a part of in Tuscaloosa. Her writing explains the devotion to surrealist ideas that they were developing.
As part of an entire generation experimenting with altered states of consciousness in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, this group of Tuscaloosa residents used surrealist principles as a basis for improvisation experiment. According to Craig Nutt (appendix), one of the chief instigators and documentarians for much of this activity, “The Pataphysical [Musical] Revue, like the Raudelunas [Art] Exposition it opened, was in a sense a showcase of the whole gamut of what was going on in our community at that time” (Nutt 1999).
A vinyl LP recording of the proceedings of the Raudelunas Pataphysical Revue was issued on the Say Day-Bew label in 1975, principally for the local audience. This motley collection of covers of standards (“Volare”; “My Kind of Town”; “Chicago”), featuring the Rev. Fred Lane, was sprinkled with Lane’s demented monologues and ironic twists take- offs on bits of stereotypical Master of Ceremony drivel. Responding to an inquiry from me concerning surrealist influences on this recording, Nutt replied: “The big band tunes walk the line between Dada Dixieland and Surreal Swing.” Nutt goes on to claim that the stand-up comedy captured on the recording anticipates the work of the late comedian Andy Kaufman. In addition to Lane’s send-ups of covers, and the jokes, “serious” music was an equal participant in the Revue. It provided the occasion for the premiere of my first collage composition, “Concerto for Active Frogs.” This piece uses call-and-response techniques, organized on a graphic score, to bring human musicians together with frog and toad vocalizations. In a collective work, Captains of Industry, the entire company of musicians played appliances, televisions, and shavers on stage. Despite an environment entirely uncomprehending of our art forms and indifferent to our experiments, we put on a unforgettable show, arming ourselves with canned applause aimed back at the largely baffled audience. 
The surrealist intentions of the community are largely focused around the Pataphysical Revue recording, due in large part to the lack of documentation on the community as a whole. It is an example of the larger awareness of the Tuscaloosa community towards surrealism in free improvisation. As individuals, Davey and Ladonna continued to develop their musical language and document the work they had done. They branched out as two forces that continued to carve out an approach to musical automatism that is unlike any other.
The intense interaction and musical rapport between Smith and Williams are legendary. They claim to communicate telepathically when performing in duo, and it’s difficult to harbor any skepticism after witnessing their joint performances… The muisc-making of Williams and Smith exemplifies the value of automatism in seizing fire and desire, as articulated by Breton: “Automatism has always guaranteed and amplified passion.”
Smith and Williams frequently collaborate with other musicians, as well as with dancers and in theatrical environments. Jewels, the recording on the trans museq label, was the first recording to feature free improvisation performed on the harp. The instruments played on this recording (LeBaron: harp, metal rack, gong; Smith: piano, piano harp, viola; Williams: acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin) create a three-way mimesis, resulting in surrealist- derived constellations of trompe l’ oreille sound objects.
Even with one of their most recent duo recordings Sequana Sessions (2015) the same holds true to their
value of physic automatism even today. Each track twists and turns with its own unique characteristic, even moving into places where Williams and Smith blend their instrument so intricately that you can no longer tell who is playing which sound. Surrealism is a foundational influence to the much larger context that surrounds Davey and LaDonna. The essential quality of their music and community actively work at a musical process that builds upon “functioning of thought” as Andre Breton describes surrealism.
Pataphysics played a similar role in the community’s approach. Although there is not much writing on the subject, Davey Williams elaborates on the importance of Pataphysics to him and the communitity later in the interview.
If mathematics is the dream of science, ubiquity (sic) the dream of mortality, and poetry the dream of speech, pataphysics fuses them into the “common sense” of Doctor Faustroll, who lives all dreams as one. Jarry recounts the miraculous tale in an utterly sober and scientific manner, and pursues his analyses with such rigor and attention to detail we lose sight of the conventional boundary between reality and hallucination.
This excerpt from the introduction to “Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll” by Alfred Jarry provides some clarity. It has been defined as “the branch of philosophy that deals with an imaginary realm additional to metaphysics.”Pataphysics and Surrealism served as active ways of music making with which the Tuscaloosa community approached their work. The unique perspective of this Tuscaloosa community are essential to the way in which they stand apart from other movements in improvisation history.
An introduction to Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith
Davey Williams, born in York, Alabama in 1952, started playing guitar at age 12. His early musical practice was in blues bands throughout the south in order to make a living. He then transitioned to playing free improvisation, which led him to playing a considerable number of concerts and being noted as one of the most respected guitarists in the free improvisation community. He was also a part of the band Curlew an American group founded by the saxophone player George Cartwright that is described as a “unique, infectious blend of punk-jazz/downtown sound, roadhouse blues & a distinctly Southern esthetic.” He was co-founder of “The Improvisor”, a magazine intended to connect the free improvisation community at large through reviews and articles. Williams is also a visual artist who creates surrealist art pieces of all kinds of varying degrees— his work was recently on display in Birmingham at a new performance and gallery space called Art Town. He has published two books—“Solo Gig” and “Which Came First: The Fried Chicken or the Fried Egg?”—and the shortest novel in the world: “Peanut”. He is still very active in the Birmingham area.
Ladonna Smith was born in 1951 in Alabama, and is a multi-instrumentalist and improviser. She has been working in the realm of the improvised music sense 1974 and co-founded the record label TransMuseq Records in collaboration with Williams in 1980. Her output spans a wide range of music. She has worked with communities of improvisers in Europe, North America, and Japan. Along with these collaborations she has recorded solo viola and violin improvisations. Recently she has been working on a new record for five-string electric violin. Along with the music, Smith has many drawings and paintings and is a skilled sculptural artist. She has also published many articles on the topic of improvisation ranging from the philosophical to discussion of the importance of improvisation education for everyone. Like Williams she is also still very active in the Birmingham area music scene, particularly in performances at Art Town.
Both of these improvisers have had very long careers. They have managed to sustain their music and art through primarily self-sufficient means, all within and outside of the area of Birmingham, Alabama where they reside today. They continue to create and help sustain a community of free improvisation and experimental music in Alabama.
They are also completely accessible, and the interviews which form the basis of this paper were simply a result of my calling them up and asking them to talk about their past and how they came to free improvisation in the first place.
Both of them started in a similar place in around 1975, when they were living in the community mentioned early near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. As Anne LeBaron mentioned in her writing, the release of the record called “Ron ‘Pate’s Debonairs feat. Rev. Fred Lane - Raudelunas’ Pataphysical Revue” is jumping to discuss this unique community both musically and culturally. This recording of a concert in March, 1975 has a huge cult following among those interested in Pataphysics and underground music generally. Even The Wire enthused:
“No other record has ever come as close to realizing Alfred Jarry's desire 'to make the soul monstrous' – or even had the vision or invention to try.”
Davey Williams and Ladonna Smith participated in the recording, alongside other key figures in the Alabama scene, including now well-known composer and harpist Anne LeBaron. I decided to start at this point in time because it is a unifying moment that people who have listened to the record may relate to, and I used it as a jumping off point for our discussion—not that the record particularly represents what Williams and Smith were really thinking about, but because it grounds the subject in time.
Williams and Smith Meet
Ladonna’s point of view is a good place to start. Her response to the early beginnings of her and Davey’s exploration into the world of free improvisation was very detailed. LaDonna speaks clearly about two individuals on a similar path with music. Their first meeting is absolutely bizarre and makes it seem like a perfect match for two improvisers to find each other. She also outlines the community they were part of as an overarching theme. We are given a detailed account of the various ways in which she interacted and began to help with building a music scene in Tuscaloosa.
“From my point of view, and Davey’s will be Davey’s. I was in graduate school. I had already completed my Bachelors of Music in Composition. One of my best friends, and actually former student, Anna LeBaron introduced me to the Raudelunas community. You know how you are having to do ear training, theory, and stuff like that. Anna LeBaron and I were in class together. We hit it off as friends and became very close. One day she said “OK, we are gonna go somewhere” and she was real vague about it. And when I got in her car Davey Williams, Mitchell Cashion, Big Jim and some others were sitting there. We were crammed in this old Cutlass station wagon. She then took us to a county fair that was out in Alberta City, Alabama. It was really bizarre. It turned out we were all getting on this Ferris wheel . Davey and I ended up together on the this Ferris wheel. I didn’t know him. He was the strangest thing I ever saw. But the Ferris wheel stopped at the top and we started talking about composition. He was extremely interested in wanting to learn to write and play music. He started talking about composition and improvisation. So anyway we met on this Ferris wheel. We found it to be significant because at the time the Ferris wheel was an icon of surrealism. When we came down we decided to meet for an improvisation. I came from the Penderecki, Stockhausen, and jazz band school. Davey was coming from his soul band, and his blues background, as a self-taught musician and somewhat taught by Johnny Shines. So it was a meeting of two totally different backgrounds. But when we met together in the jazz band room I brought a viola and there was a piano. He brought his guitar and our improvisation just magically flowed in such a way that seemed so natural. It was compositional too and it wasn’t like a jam session. It hooked me and him. We had a magical chemistry between us. We could create psychic automatism in the moment, it was a real moment.
When we first played we knew this was concert music. It has something, this chemistry we could rely on, and trust. We then began meeting on a regular basis just to play music. Davey would come over and we worked on music but I didn’t really help him on writing compositions. A lot of his ideas were based on the visual kind of scores. But I found him to be very creative and it sparked a relationship. From there we did a duo concert on April 7th, 1976 and we invited different people from the community. The “community” was a neighborhood. Some of the people had grown up in Tuscaloosa and others had just sort of you know “college communities”, these houses that people rent. We all wound up next to each other and meeting. That’s how Raudelunas kind of got started, friendships that were based locally. I then met more of the Raudelunas people as time went by because we were all there in that community. Before you know it they were having an art exhibition. We had parades and we would go to each others’ houses. I got into it because I met Davey and Anne. There was these huge jam sessions of noise music. People on sax just blowing their brains out. They were doing a kind of a revolutionary anti-music”
The Raudelunas Community and Improvisation
Smith’s account of the early interactions of the community in Tuscaloosa sets the scene for how they were going to approach building on the modality of free improvisation. She had an open mind to whatever was about to happen when Anna LeBaron told her to join the people in the Cutlass station wagon and drove them out to the Ferris wheel. Really there is no good reason why she got in the car that day, other than it was a friend who might have enjoyed surrealist references and found others that were similar. However, her choice led her to Davey Williams. She then found herself playing music with Davey. This also creates a break from the anti-normal of the Raudelunas community. They met to make a music that fit their context for music-making, an exploration derived from two different worlds. Both of them bravely leapt away from what they had learned in order to create this music. It must have been a powerful moment to realize that the music they were playing was just as important as any other established music. Whatever it was, it caused them to branch out from everything else going on around them. From the very beginning of their exploration in free improvisation they were jumping head first into this world. They were relying maybe on their sense of worth or a rebellious will power because when they first began there must have been little contact with other improvisers.
Davey Williams found himself on a similar path, though he communicates his experience slightly differently, constantly thinking and searching about what he is going to say next. He responded to my questions about how he began a life in improvisation with a philosophical bent that seemed to be searching for a way to keep his ego far from entering the picture. He began by talking about the Raudelunas community and the impact it had on his playing and on aspects of how he thinks about playing his instrument.
“Let’s see. For me and LaDonna and the Raudelunas thing, it actually started when everybody lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, either going to or living near the University of Alabama. It’s called an art collective nowadays but we didn’t call it that back then. It was just a collective of friends who were interested in various different types of art and music. We were interested in free jazz and these European composers like Ligeti and Penderecki. I was playing in juke houses from about 1971 to 1972. Then I was playing in this soul band, “The Fantastic Salt and Pepper Soul Band and Review”! All of this was basically just African American gigs for the most part. The “schtick” was that Salt and Pepper were these cats that were all very professional and very good musicians. We all had band uniforms. We were a cover band you know. Playing the soul hits. I was working six nights a week with that band. But I was with these friends also, the Raudelunas group. Then one day they invited me over to their house. I didn’t really know them well but one day a buddy said: “We are gonna play over at this place”. I said “OK, let me get my guitar, this guy Mike Ellis said “No, no! Look! Don’t bring your guitar!”. I thought: “What? Ok?” So we went over there and it was just this room where they played in. It was just dented metal cans, saxophones, just stuff laying around. People came with this notion of having no idea how to play these things, there were even “non-instruments”. Just making sounds without rules. At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that this whole notion of not knowing what I’m doing, if I can actually transfer that mentality to playing the guitar, that is to say, to quit playing what I already know how to do, quit trying to steal these blues riffs from someone like Earl Hooker or somebody and just really re-examine the whole idea of what the guitar could do or sound like, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a guitar at all. This opened up a whole new way of looking at playing guitar that I stuck with ever since. Although I have always continued to play notes and riffs so I can play anything that comes to mind, sort of, not really possible but I did not want to not be limited by stumbly fingers.”
Developing a Personal Language
There is a sense of realization that shifts his point of view about music. He becomes aware of the possibilities that this new way of playing music can hold. I think this represents a clear difference between him and LaDonna. There is a process that is not shared. She has classical training and an education in music. He was primarily self-taught. The way they come to improvisation distinguishes them from each other. LaDonna is dealing with what it means to mix classical education with improvisation, while Davey is working out how he will relate to improvisation within his self-taught language. A similar goal is in mind but their process towards improvisation differs considerably.
If you look at how they began to take on musical roles in the community after they met and began playing music together, they spent a lot of time in Tuscaloosa developing their language as improvisers but they were still in two very different worlds. Smith was still in graduate school and Williams was playing in various bands seven days a week to pay the rent. I was curious about how free improvisation found its way to a somewhat rural area like Tuscaloosa. Tapes hadn’t yet become a cheap method of getting music out for people to listen to. I asked LaDonna about her time in school and how she got interested in new music.
“There was hardly anything in the university library. So I had to teach electronic music and it was a part of my job as a graduate student. All the composition teachers at the time didn’t know anything about it and didn’t want to teach it. Except the head of the depart Charles Vester who wanted to bring an electronic music lab to the university. I was the one to teach it. I suddenly had to look up everything I could find in the library. So I went to the record store and luckily we had an independent record store. They were getting in the Deutsche Grammophon and Nonesuch records. That’s how I wound up buying this music and world music. Those two kinds of music and any electronic music, if I could find it. Any composers past 1950, I would buy that stuff and teach off of the back of the LP covers. I went over to the film department and checked out films. We also got speakers and an Arp 2600, that was all. So we invited one of my friends William “Igor” Alford (see appendix) who built the first mixer for us so we could plug in a few things more than one at a time. My class consisted of about eight people, six males and two women. They were running around recording trains, whistles and things like that in the class. Trying to make tape pieces, splicing tape. One guy was running the tape all the way around the room going around mic stands and doing old fashion loops. We were just going to our wit’s end and figuring out how things worked. And how to put things together with tape. It was all cool and really free. They just let me do whatever. I always thought that electronic music concerts should be somewhere with good carpet and bean bags let everybody lay on the floor to listen to it. I couldn’t stand it in the concert hall, it wasn’t the right spot. You need to be comfortable and just listen.”
This university environment formed a completely unique experience that many people didn’t have at the time. It was probably not ideal or easy by any means, but it was undeniably special. A section of music that was more or less swept aside by the university was open for Smith to explore, along with people interested in the electronic music art form. She was given a whole world to experiment with and a set of tools that pushed her and her students to be creative with what they had. There is a self-sufficiency already becoming apparent just in the environment that was presented to her. The freedom that is expressed about the class is amazing. There was no definition of how to do something, so they made it up on the spot. Her class improvised a version of electronic music, and the freedom that was given to them still seems extraordinary. This ability to be given the keys to a whole class and make something magical happen really seems to embody what Ladonna became as a creative individual, and it was done with a level of humor and the foresight not to control how the class deal with the material that make it obvious that this must have been an astounding class to attend! Even further, her work did not stop in education. She went on to write articles on improvisation and the importance of it in education. In the article “Improvisation in Childhood Music Training and Techniques for Creative Music Making,” Smith explains the need for new approaches to teaching music and goes on to outline how this process might be done.
Having been around day school programs, traditional music lessons, functioning for 15 years as teacher and Director of a Suzuki Violin Program, a church musician, and a pioneering improvisor in the current movement of free improvisation in America; I find that the next most pressing challenge for music educators, practitioners, and teachers, and for me personally, is to forge new directions in music education, particularly those which involve improvisation. Not that classical education is bad. In fact, I truly appreciate being brought up in the classical school, in the traditions that echoed traditions. But it forces me to look deep, when I observe music being taught as it always has been taught, both on the elementary and even the college level. New life must be breathed into our methods or the effectiveness of music education is in serious jeopardy of breaking down. It is time to change old concepts of music study, and instrumental instruction, if we are to survive with the changing of the times; for music education to survive as a viable force, accessible, and challenging the advances of the new millenium.
The article is a further example of the continued creative approach that LaDonna used back when she was in graduate school teaching the electronic music program. She continues on to explain newer ways in which teaching can better help children learn to understand their relationship to music, ultimately arriving at improvisation as an aid in helping teach new ways of developing learning about music.
Improvisation is clearly a key to unlock the doors of music making in the future. With change being the constant element of our existence (as it always has been), musical training should begin with the concept of creativity placed first and foremost above "how-to" methodology, tradition, or technique. Those would become the "special" studies. The analogy may be like this. "I want, I desire, I visualize the creation, say, of a quilt that tells the story of my life. It will look like this… It will have these squares. Then, the question becomes, "How can I do it?" First the desire, then the idea, and then comes the technique. First you get the picture, then you cut the material into shapes, or create figures that tell a story, or combine colors that create a mood. You dye the material, you practice the sewing techniques, you stuff the quilt, you hem. The ideas may change as you go. You adapt, and continue to create as you proceed with the process. One day the masterpiece is complete, only to leave the possibility for starting the process all over, once again.
LaDonna’s work as an educator has continued to develop as an influential perspective that challenges the normal process of a musical education. She doesn’t dismiss the importance of established forms of learning. Instead, she wants to add to the process of learning in order to keep it relevant. She seeks to continue help musicians learn and think critical about the music they are creating. In terms of history, it is important to point out that she continued to value the spontaneous approach to education that began with her teaching an under appreciated electronic music program at her university.
Williams’ point of view takes a different turn. We talked about how he relates to Pataphysics and Surrealism. Again, the mental process is important. He continues to talk about how he developed his musical practice through the thought process. It is less narrative driven and more geared towards a philosophical point of view.
“That was a huge influence on me and everyone around at the time, it goes back to improvising too. It’s getting stuff from the inside to the outside musically. Ideas that seemed inconsequential or invisible can turn out to be critical influences on stuff. Pataphysics is the whole notion of the science of imaginary solutions. The divide between the concrete and the not really material is kind of a false divide that has equal potential value. John Cage once said that all sound is music, I don’t quite agree with that, but I do think that all sound might be music. It’s the same thing, any phenomenon might be a real phenomenon whether it exists yet or not. The notion that something might be a probability but it’s also a certainty. Nothing is guaranteed but the probability of something is in fact a type of guarantee. A lot of it has to do with letting go of a need to have a notion that we need to possess everything. I’m getting out of my certainty zone, but it has to do with not needing to possess. Say a farmer says “I wish it would rain today” but then something else happens and it rains another day. Something still happened and it might rain some other day. I really like this idea. It gets to the idea of trust. You mentioned early musicians trusting each other and in a larger sense trusting in reality.”
“What do you mean by trust in reality? Do the musicians trust each other and create the reality?”
“ It works the other way. The reality utilizes the musicians to do the making rather than the musicians utilizing the reality to do the making. I sort of feel like as a player and improviser I am not really a decision-maker but more of a conduit of ideas or occurrences that I have relatively little to do with. Well, let’s say someone comes up to you after a gig and says that was amazing. To me that doesn’t mean “I am amazing” or “It was amazing”. I just happened to be standing there with the instrument in my hand. It’s really important for me to keep my ego out of the way. We all want to think either alternately A. “I got this thing together” or more likely B. “Shit! I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
The less narrative driven side that is Williams’ point of view highlights process and development. He was open to the environment that was around him and shaped his own personal perspective, it was focused on an approach to improvisation and his relationship with his instrument. His personal perspective is further highlighted by his book “Solo Gig Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation”
In playing, we can encounter types of magnetisms, or something behaving as magnetisms. A player’s mind intuitively sort of “locks on” to some other player’s activity; their phrasing, say…. Actually this analogy applies more correctly to electromagnetism, since these connections are usually temporary in nature. They occur, take on a function in the sound-making interaction, and then the moment of their functioning somehow morphs into some other kind of interaction. At that point the electromagnet has been at least temporarily disconnected from that particular sonic event. (Note: the disconnect switch is under the kitchen cabinet, on your right….)
The quote from his book is an example of the kind of shifts that Davey works into all aspects of his work. It is distinctly him and has a surrealist quality to the way he talks about playing. He remains on the subject but moves into other distinct realms to make his point further. In an essay on Davey’s book by Kevin Whitehead, he attempts to further distinguish how Williams writes and thinks about free improvisation.
The conversational tone, the whimsical digression, the likening of music impulses to physical forces – that’s Williams all over. He takes inspiration from noting his guitar strings were once molten metal, and stone before that. (Not to mention magnetic.) Elsewhere he compares music to “‘liquid architecture,’ which in the case of improvising, employs design features that evolve while being executed.”  Through all the talk of inclusive listening (Cage was right) and superior inattention (when you wind up in some beautiful collective space without willing it) and Swarm Theory (we turn like birds in flight), he likes things fluid, like any surrealist. Dreams are “a primary model of how improvised music can proceed, formally speaking. Jump-cuts, juxtapositions, unfamiliar things recognized, accepted and worked with.”  Improvisation is a sort of meta- narrative, then. Which brings us to that other story intruding on this one, mentioned earlier. Williams tells us right up front what he’s up to, like a teacher who gives the finals questions in the opening minutes of a college course, knowing no one’s paying attention yet. He’s “somehow improvising the book in the way that I might be improvising solo on my instrument. Words and punctuation standing in for notes and phrasing…. [T]his might be a book about musical improvisation. Since it hasn’t been written yet, I can’t say with certainty. At this point, I could still write a novel.” [7-8] Which, it turns out 67 pages later, he seems to be doing in another universe, or maybe two universes, as scraps of that story/those stories briefly intrude this one, as if we’re overhearing Philip K. Dick loudly typing in the next room. 
Whiteheads article, centers around the book and serves as a further insight into the complexity of how Davey communicates in his writing. Davey’s book is extremely thoughtful in terms of subject matter about improvisation. It is full of a playfulness that leads you through twists in turns in getting to his point that resembles the ideas of phychic automatism.
The dynamic of these two artists reveals a contrast that shapes a musical world that is forming between them. Smith seems to have a coolness about her intentions with music making. She was comfortable with exploration and adopted it very easily within the context she was already living out as a graduate student teaching electronic music. It seemed natural for her to be in positions that forced her to be creative. Similarly her music does the same thing with a completely confident exploration of sound. Davey on the other hand is searching. He is constantly looking for a way to come to a conclusion that leaves room for something to change. Never landing on a complete answer. They both have strong backgrounds in other musical art forms that they had worked on for number of years. The community they found through Raudelunas shaped a path for them to grow. Of course the performance together after the Ferris wheel meeting must have been powerful. It marked a starting point for them to begin creating an independent musical realm all of their own. It was a shared world where the rules were set simply by the fact of their meeting.
A Departure from the South
As the two protagonists began to improvise and work more closely together, the impetus to leave the South and to make connections in rest of the United States and the world started to become important. A sense of connection started to come into play a couple of years after the Tuscaloosa community solidified. It probably came from the question that many people find themselves asking: “Where are other people playing similar music.” I asked LaDonna Smith about their exit from Tuscaloosa and the move to Birmingham.
“At the same time the neighborhood Raudelunas stuff was going on and the electronic music studio at the university, Davey and I moved in with each other and made a studio called the Transmuseq Studio. We came up with that name very early on. We got egg carton crates, padded one of the rooms to make a studio. Because I was a graduate student I could check out instruments from the University of Alabama’s “Million Dollar” band. So I checked out everything. We had everything from tuba, coronet, and xylophone. You name it, we had it. The studio where we lived kind of became the watering hole for the community to play music at. It was super active for at least three years. Davey was writing letters to people, he was a prolific letter writer. I think he is sort of responsible for connecting us. He was writing with Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser (see appendix). There was Musics magazine and he wrote Pete Whitely who was a critic in London and wrote about what was going on with the London Musicians’ Collective. Davey was writing stories, articles and essays, he was a really incredible writer. Suddenly we get letters back and Eugene would be coming to town to play in the south. He was up in Canada dodging the draft. He came through and produced our first organized concert. We played and Eugene played and we all played together. The next person we attracted was Andrea Centazzo (see appendix), he found out about us through Musics. Davey sent some reel-to-reel tapes to England, to Evan Parker and Derek Bailey and Peter Riley(see appendix). We got reviewed in Musics magazine about these people down in the middle of nowhere Alabama. So that’s how Andrea found us. He was doing a tour so we wound up bringing him and doing a concert. Evan Parker came third. Eugene wanted to come back through with John Zorn and Polly Bradfield (see appendix). So we had the trio come through. So we started organizing concerts with people who were playing in the Transmuseq Studio. We realized our first album that had about seven collaborators on it. Trans 1 and Trans 2. We played regularly ever Sunday night with Theodore Bowing (see appendix), we realized a trio album. Second one out. Then we moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Then Eugene came back with John Zorn and Lesli Dalaba (see appendix). Then we got invited to New York that was our first trip while in Tuscaloosa and Henry Kaiser invited us to San Francisco. So we wound up making a tour out of stopping in Denver and LA. Henry organized a bunch of stuff like Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and SF. Our gig in Denver got derailed because we broke down. But the guy who organized the whole thing ended up driving to meet us anyway. I think we were an anomaly. You had this guy and girl in plaid shirts, you know wearing farm boots. But urban people are interested because it was so unusual. Just like in Europe people came to see us like exotic monkeys in a way. They said “How in world did they get involved in free improvisation.” But they didn’t realize that the Tuscaloosa community was that special. We kind of ended up being ambassadors in a way, traveling and once you start meeting other people, one thing leads to another. And our trekking began while were in Tuscaloosa. Then we really developed when we came to Birmingham.”
Strength in a Common Music
After this interaction, their worlds change. An affirmation for their music starts to take place. Maybe there was a realization that free improvisation was much bigger than they had expected, especially now that Davey and LaDonna had a strong sense of community behind them in Tuscaloosa and a communication line to others beyond Alabama, their house being the place to be to make music. They had a music studio where they recorded and got their music out to the other improvisers who were already established. It was a mark of independence that began to strengthen with each new avenue that they explored in their musical development. It is also a decentralized approach—the context they are in is no longer strongly attached to the nucleus of a local art movement. Nothing in Alabama's larger context in the world suggested that a music scene could grow in the region of Tuscaloosa, but then you have these two super-determined people who appear out of nowhere creating music that links them to free improvisation far and wide. This opening didn’t stop them for a single moment, rather the opposite—they continued to produce and create despite being ignored in large part by the city or the state. It was an expression of will, a powerful statement that the music they were making was important. For example, Davey’s description of how he began to get in contact with other improvisers through the mail. With a light hearted manner he writes a letter to Derek Bailey, at that time one of the central figures in the improvisation community world-wide, and a hugely influential thinker and mentor to a whole generation of younger improvisers.
“A friend Roger Hagerty, the late Roger Hagerty, he at that time worked at an independent record store. Like all of us, he was keenly interested in music that we had never heard before like late John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman, you know all this stuff on the jazz end. He worked at the store and he took huge liberties ordering all these records. Incus and European records that totally no one had heard of. People like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Han Bennink (see appendix), all these European guys. We were lucky Roger worked at this record store. Derek Bailey who happened to make the mistake of publishing his phone number on an album cover gave me the idea to call him up out of the blue. I said: “Hey we have been listening to your records. We are working on something sort of similar, it doesn’t sound like what you are doing exactly but we are working the same way. We were talking about improvising. Derek Bailey said that I should get in touch with Evan Parker and gave me his contact. This was all in the days of snail mail. No CDs. We had no vinyl out. Evan said we should be making some recordings and me and Ladonna had just played our first actual duo gig in about 1973. This is a couple years after that I suppose. Evan said we should make recordings and send them around to him and people so they could know what we were up to. So we recorded a series onto reel-to-reel. This was before cassette was good enough to put music out on. Then cassettes came into their own and that became the medium of exchange that people put music out on. After the reel–to-reel series and some cassette recordings we got more in contact with people. We then decided that we should put out an LP. So we started out contacting a company that did country and gospel records up in Nashville. They pressed records and did covers for them too. We put together masters and put out an LP or two at our own expense, about 500 copies max. By this time we got in contact with Fred Frith (see appendix), Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser. We all came out with records around this time. About this time Fred Frith was doing his Guitar Solos records (see appendix). Things just kind of started and snail mail networked for quite some time.”
Williams and Smith did everything themselves just like Sun Ra was doing with El Saturn records in 1957. Any work on getting attention for what they were doing, both in the recording studio and as performers, was regarded as a completely creative act, arising not only from the need for documentation, but from the desire to communicate. It was a statement to other improvisation communities saying: “We are here and there is music being made” and a way of demonstrating that the music they were making had a voice and an idea behind it, that it was worthy of attention. It might not have been seen as a life or death matter, but the output and intensity suggests a real determination to keep their music alive. With no preconceived notion of how free improvisation should be, they contacted people throughout the international improvising community, following paths wherever they led them. LaDonna explains their trip to Europe as just another part of the process of their development as musicians. I asked her to share one of her many tour stories.
“Oh gosh! This was one of the first times that terrorists were talked about in the world. Andrea picked us up in England and he was going to pick us up in his little car and drive to Italy. We stopped in Paris to do a radio show and he left us at a coffee shop eating cheese and drinking wine. We didn’t get to go to the radio show, he went by himself. He toured us quick around Paris. We then went on down to Italy and he got us through the border patrol. He was laughing: “Ha ha ha, those stupid idiots, they didn’t even notice.” We didn’t know why. He was very nervous about going through the border. About 30 or 40 miles on down we got pulled over by the police. He exclaimed, “Oh shit!” He has our record waving it in the air saying: “Don’t shoot, I have famous American musicians.” Davey said: “Put your hands on the dash.” Davey was nervous and he pricked up like a wild cat you know. I was real relaxed you know and I put my hands on the dash. They had machine guns and they were pointed at us. Andrea got out and talked to them showing them our record. Pointed at us and pointed at the record. He gets his wallet out and shells out a ton of money. He paid them off to let us go. It turned out the violation was, they thought we were terrorists because he travels with four large metal drum cases. They pulled us over because the car was licensed for two people to be in it. I was having to sit on the shift stick. That car had all of his equipment in it plus a viola and two guitars. So he put us on the next train because if we got caught again we would be put in jail. So we went on down to Pistoia, Italy for the concert.”
Again there is a dynamic created between their reactions to the situation they find themselves in. They are caught in this moment of armed guards trying to figure out if they are terrorists. In an almost laughable the way they react just as they seem to play. Ladonna just accepts the situation that she is given and handles it with a coolness. Davey is physically searching and looking for an answer to the situation. It is kind of similar to their descriptions of the sort of directions they moved in when we talked about their early experiences with free improvisation. A parallel can be drawn here. The situation forced them to improvise in an extreme situation and their personalities seemed to have really been on display at that moment.
Contributions to a Growing Movement
At this point in their career Davey and Ladonna began to develop a sense of being a part of the free improvisation community. They had created strong bonds with other people practicing this type of music. Their next step was to reinforce the ideas they were working within their own community in Tuscaloosa. They had moved to Birmingham and were now hosting other improvisers from around the United States and the world. It seems natural that they should go on to create a form of communication for the larger community of improvisers, a network for improvisers to share their ideas. They needed a way to talk about the music and to keep building on the fact that what they were doing was a legitimate art form. This next step led Davey to help create a magazine called “The Improvisor”. It was a work that was intended to connect people and open up the world of free improvisation to others
“While we were in New York we made friends with a trumpet player Lesli Dalaba, who was also on the scene. She said: “Why don’t we start a network?”. The Improvisor started out as just a list of contacts. Also cassettes began sounding good enough. It was huge breakthrough because there was no capital outlay. Burn each one of them at a time. You didn’t have to have a 1,000 dollars to make a bunch of records. You could just work on a need for each individual order with cassettes. So me and Ladonna started getting all these cassettes. Ladonna said let’s make a journal to review all of these cassettes. They were all totally created from the inside out by improvisers. All of the content would be improvisers writing about their music and others. We did one a year. It went from 25 pages to 60 pages and it got bigger and bigger. It was demonstrating that free improvisation was a legitimate art form. Not officially legitimate but an important music. Because in the early days if someone asked what kind of music are you playing and you said free improvisation and it meant nothing. You might talk to someone about it and you would know they were thinking about rock jamming. We were trying to legitimize the whole concept. I hate to use the word but it was becoming a “legitimate art form”. So the “Improvisor” was self-evident, any one of us could stop improvising and it would keep going. The music seemed like it had taken its own head.”
The situation that Davey found at the end of working with the “Improvisor” was hope. The music kept growing and growing to a point that it went beyond the need for such an intense networking system. The duality of Davey and LaDonna’s situation is very interesting. The growth of technology and the expansion of people’s communication in the world outgrew the need for what they were doing. It is a duality that is a little hard to accept because it was a beautiful idea to bring people together. The people that were closely inside the circle during the time are obviously aware of the importance of the Davey and LaDonna. They appeared on John Zorn’s early game piece recordings. Williams recorded a solo for Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos 3 alongside Keith Rowe (see appendix), Henry Kaiser, and several others. Meanwhile LaDonna expanded the work by creating a festival for improvised music. Named the “Birmingham Improv Festival”, it brought together improvisers from all over the world for a celebration and a creative look at what this community consisted of. I asked LaDonna if she worked closely with Davey on the “Improviser” which eventually led us to talking about the festival. Her response continues to highlight the importance of their work in the world of free improvisation.
Furthering A Sense of Community
“In 1978 we went to record that School record with Eugene and that piece with Zorn. It might have been one more trip later. After that we were meeting people. Lesli Dalaba and Chris Cochrane (see appendix) invited Davey and I to collaborate with Bob Ostertag (see appendix). We decided we were going to create the Improvisors Network. So we did, and Lesli was going to be the first president because it was her idea. They wanted Davey to make a newsletter for everyone who had sent tapes and contact information. People were sharing their stuff through the mail. This was when the very first independent companies were coming up. It was real lo-fi and off the grid. People were sharing cassettes. In Tuscaloosa we had to send out reel-to-reels. Then when we got to Birmingham we started making cassettes and if you were really serious you would make an LP. So that started it . It was a four page book that showed the US and points on the map. It had contacts and some articles. Then it became xerox magazines of about five or six issues. Number 8 issue we did our first full-blown publication. We started by printing the covers and went back to xerox pages for the rest of the books. We would sell ads and people doing their own music would take out an ad and we would do reviews on the tapes. Davey did the first few issues and got really tired of it. I was working and making the money while he was writing and doing all this. I had to take over after Davey got tired. Then the Improviser Festival came about the same time Davey got tired. I got involved in Birmingham Art Association. In ‘84 or ‘85 they had an administrator who had got a grant for a music series so we did an improvisation series. They got a gallery on Second Avenue North. It was right on the corner next to Space 1/11 and I was asked to run that concert series. We went off making concerts of people we knew and supported that concert. After a year or two of that we did the actual festival so I did a few of those. Then Craig Holmgren sponsored some festivals and others. It got passed around like a community, it was alive. That how Birmingham Improv got started through BAA. The Improvisor, the book got too big for our britches. It started being too much. Glenn Engstrand he was a fine and surrealist artist and computer guy. So we then published the Improvisor to the web. We got online close to 2000 or 1999 when we quit publishing. We got swamped and had a few reviews but we had to shut it down in 2010. That’s when we did the big improviser festival that lasted a month. By that time I had good experience from organizing festivals from Birmingham improv. I decided it was going to be the swan song of The Improvisor and I just couldn’t keep doing it and no one else was taking up the responsibility to organize it. Besides that with everything online you have all these other formats. It’s not like it was when it was hard to find this information. It’s not like that anymore and it kind of moved beyond us at this point. It’s time to close this down and it’s out of date. I wanted everyone to know it was finished. So I invited some people from different cities. We had the festival in 5 cities in the United States and in Birmingham. We invited everyone we knew and people from foreign countries. We had benefactors and corporate funding that we needed to use up. We had a big hurrah at the end. Everyone came together. Just like the southern community—great hospitality, we had people letting people stay in their houses. We had organizational meetings and I would delegate what would be happening. Hunter Bell was great at doing publicity. He took over the PR stuff. We got some free hotel rooms. We got photographers and committees going to venues and different places. It was really great.”
This effort undertaken by the community and LaDonna is massive! It is a very telling example of the fact that at this point the music they are making is worthy of attention. They were following in the tradition of improvised music labels in Europe: FMP (Germany, started 1969), ICP (Netherlands, started 1967), and Incus (UK, started 1970), as well as the pioneering El Saturn (begun in 1957 in Chicago and best-known for many releases of Sun Ra) among many others. These labels are examples of independent creative artists dealing with their marginalization by creating their own means of communication. Davey and LaDonna were documenting their music like many marginalized music labels and musicians had done in the past, and continue to do now.
It is completely self-sustained in every way, a community of people taking the time to hold onto something that was important to them. Despite the eventual passing of its time as the Internet came to replace what they were originally doing with The Improvisor, Davey and LaDonna helped sustain an art movement in the south and contributed to a larger movement in North America. LaDonna further describes how she went about gathering funds to continue the Birmingham Free Improvisation Festival.
“The funny thing is we never went “non-profit organization”. Davey and I have always been skeptical of trying to do that. But we worked through other organizations like the Birmingham Art Association. When I was doing the Music of the Moment Festival with them, a friend in Albuquerque had a big gift from his friend in New York and gave to organizations that he thought were important. So I spent that through BAA and I was real careful with the funds so it trickled out over 10 years. Because I know we would never get any more funding. Because of that we did a couple of festivals and BAA—we had non-profit with them —I would go to Alabama Power, and I had a friend that had a family foundations business in town and they gave some money. I just started calling people and someone working at AMS and they donated money. So you just put on your businessy-looking suit and you go and have a meeting with the president of the foundation and say it’s really unusual but we need your support to keep this creative movement afloat. By the time The Improvisor came around the BAA was falling apart—when they left their galleries—so I moved our money into BAMA organization. Swapped were the sponsors for The Improvisor festival. So I went around after the organization, they still sent us money. So we had a budget. They held our bank account and you work through an umbrella organization. I wrote grants too and I tried to write some but I was competing for the composer grants. My generation now when we were in our 30’s and late 20’s we had a huge community. At my age I am 67 years old and what I am seeing now is your generation and its great! I don’t need to organize this stuff anymore. Let them do this, it’s working out and its great!”
The Importance of Their Work and Where They are Now
It’s very rare to be able to have something start from small means and morph into a large scale movement. It took hold in the most unlikely of places. Without any bitterness, the community moved forward on the paths that they were given to make a real change in the world of music they found important. Free Improvisation is never likely to be in the eye of mainstream culture in America. The form is far too elusive and rebellious to sell in an ad. It is slippery and changes constantly. With the rise of improvisation’s importance in academia, more and more writing is being done to try and speak to what is happening when people improvise. The stories of all the different types of improvisation are being told, and the unending nature of the art form is catching even the classical musical world’s attention. It is impossible now not to have some idea of what improvisation is if you are going to be playing an instrument. So naturally more stories need to be told, especially in order to understand that the community that brought this art form into more peoples’ lives is much larger than expected. The world of free improvisation needs investigating further. In Davey and LaDonna’s case, we need to highlight the importance of the work that these two artists accomplished,
The world that Davey and LaDonna grew up in and are still inhabiting is noted as having many famous artists leave the state to go out to make great music. The odd part about Davey and LaDonna is that they chose to stay. It’s unusual as far as trying to make a career in music, and begs the question as to what were their intentions were after they had traveled so far to communicate with others in the global improvisation community and worked so hard to create a network that tried to connect everyone. Why go back to a place that seemingly made it difficult to be stay connected? There is little discussion about why they ended up back in the south, beyond Davey mentioning that it had to do with the situation he was in. LaDonna never really talked about why she stayed in Alabama. It seems like Birmingham was a natural place to be and that it was clear they needed to be there. It is a wonderful thing that these two improvisers are still around in Birmingham, sustaining a music scene that supports free improvisation. As Davey put it:
“The thing about New York. I went about once a year. In ‘86 or ‘87 Tom Cora got me to come up to practice in Curlew. At first I was crashing in his apartment. I wound up at Lesli Dalaba’s place. She had an apartment. This building 206 east 7th in the East Village in New York, it turned out to be a legendary building where Allen Ginsberg lived in the 50’s. It turned out that Zorn, Lesli, and Elliot Sharp and I were staying there. I was spending about half of every year in New York. I realized if I was going to stay in New York then I would have to get a job. It was a daunting proposition because I was only qualified to play music. New York really felt, not so much now because of gentrification, it felt like home, like no other city ever has except maybe Amsterdam. Maybe it’s just me being lazy and I had this house in Birmingham so I thought I would stay half the year in New York and then come back to stupid old Alabama. Just finding odd jobs just to get back to New York.”
He is torn between these two worlds he made for himself. It is a little sad to see someone make a choice to move away from somewhere he felt comfortable. The choice had to have had an effect on what they doing as musicians. The feeling that everything was happening somewhere else may have been on Davey’s mind constantly. The more important part is that they stayed and helped continue the music’s presence in Birmingham, a story that also lends itself to improvisation! The fact that Davey might have some regret in staying in Alabama is made up for by his deep knowledge of the area. It feels almost natural that he and LaDonna would be part of a place that is not necessarily central to the South’s more accepted narrative and tradition. Davey explains:
“Yeah. The south is a funny thing. It occupies a weird place sociologically in the United States. Birmingham particularly. Because the Old South, you know, Antebellum days, the Civil War and stuff like that, there wasno Birmingham. It was just a swampy area between a couple hills. Birmingham was only founded while the south was under martial law, as a result of having started the stupid civil war. Which they could have never won. Mercifully was a bad idea to start with. The whole thing was a bad idea. My theory is that you got this conquered land, Alabama, the deep south; then someone comes from Pittsburgh or somewhere where they are already in the metal industry. They think, “Wait here is another mountain of iron or, here is mountain full of limestone, and a huge coal bed, this could be a steel industry”, so they started the steel industry there. Birmingham was started by bringing this huge workforce of rural people that just lived out in the sticks. All of sudden here is a new town and there was factory work. It brought all of these people who had been in lower economic statutes—“ignorant southerners”—into this city. From the get-go Birmingham was an anomaly from the rest of the south. They started building steel mills quickly, so all of a sudden you have 50,000 to 100,000 people working shift work. Birmingham is still not big enough and not together enough to be a true major city in a sense that it’s like Nashville or Atlanta. It’s also too big to be a part of the Old South and it never was anyway. If you go back to the early blues or country music it doesn’t sound like it does today, it sounds really weird. Meanwhile you have these people who were rural illiterates. Birmingham was also the giant iron steel manufacturing area. It was a hotbed for leftist politics; you know, labor vs. management. That stuff came right to the forefront. It expanded out into areas that no-one would have anticipated. Maybe they would have predicted it but not here. Hegel maybe, but maybe no one else would have guessed Birmingham. It’s sort of a funny thing about Birmingham. I stumbled into owning a house here. If I wasn’t able to go elsewhere periodically. I would just have to go somewhere else.”
Birmingham itself is a place where people were kind of smashed together and forced to deal with each other. Davey and LaDonna have a special relationship with this area. It is a place that has forced many people to improvise in a different context. However, like many cities it asks of people to have to deal with other people.
It is further highlighted in the words of LaDonna. She shares her point of view on the importance of free improvisation, beautiful words that are very hopeful for the ability of music to really change peoples’ lives.
“Yes! One of our psychological tenets, especially one of mine, is that this music is like a cultural or national cultural recreation. If we could get people to realize how much fun free improvisation is, that anyone can do it and learn from it, you don’t have to be a trained musician, that anybody can experience an instrument for the first time. They are the best improvisers because they don’t know what they are doing. They are experimenting in the moment. They are really consuming the true essence of the art by being a first timer. If we could get school children and let them play or people who thought they could never play a musical instrument it would be really great. Once they get the taste of it, they listen to so much musical Muzak that has been produced and they think that’s what music is. So they have just been under-exposed. Part of our mission is to go out and do these concerts or to go and do workshops to show that music belongs to your soul not to corporate America. This is the revolution that music is a cultural recreation that says if everyone was banging around in the basements we wouldn’t have such a football culture. Baseball is not the national pastime, wouldn’t it be great if it was free improvisation.
We were about this idea of going to back to nature or music. It was a movement we were involved in back in the 70’s taking the music out of the hands of the producer. At the same time we need to return to sanity. But everybody thinks it has to be produced from somewhere else. You hear people go that “I always wanted to play piano”. But why can’t they? Because they have a preconceived notion of what it takes but it takes really little. It’s one thing to have a mastery of any specific thing whether it’s piano or coding, but it’s another thing to experience that everyone has a voice. Anybody can sit down and improvise with anything they just think they have to have permission.
Everyone thinks it. Davey was very against hero worship. When you have a corporate structure that puts musicians high up and makes them money. They control who gets to be on top and the whole idea that someone has to be on top. The whole notion that musicians have to be famous and the whole notion of fame is ridiculous. Because you’re here today and gone tomorrow, everyone is. It might have something to do with classical music having its Beethoven and Bach. The fact is there is no posterity. You just need to make music for today. Every generation superseded the one before. You might be a big deal today but you will be undercurrent the next. Let someone else rise up and they’re going to go back undercurrent. It’s just a part of understanding the nature of things.”
The nature of things is possibly the best description of Davey and Ladonna because their music is completely based in letting the moment happen. It is never a question of where we are going, it just simple happens. As an improviser from Alabama these points of view were never directly spoken about but were very much a part of the environment. Much of my work as a musician is a relationship that is made of up of both of their stories. When I first started playing guitar it was completely free improvisation with little knowledge about what I was doing. I then studied classical guitar for four years at a university. By chance I was introduced to the music of John Zorn and found Fred Frith’s record Guitar Solos (1974) and read the highly influential book by Derek Bailey, Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music. I began consciously improving and searching for people who improvised in the Birmingham Alabama area. I met an artist/improviser name Jess Marie Walker (see appendix) and we started a group named Flusnoix dedicated to free improvisation. We were able to record two records with various other musicians in the area, but Davey and LaDonna still remained relatively unknown to me. I would see them perform in the Birmingham area on a regular basis but felt unsure about how to approach them. It wasn’t until I left the south that I really began to understand their impact and large body of work. I always thought I needed to leave Alabama to find out about improvisation, but I found myself consistently looking back at the place I left for inspiration. Their complete dedication to their music and community has helped me to better understand empathy. It is an example of self-reliance on which I want to model my own musical output. I hope this work can serve as another perspective on the unique community of improvisers and artists in Alabama who have helped establish another place for improvisation to continue to grow.
William “Igor” Alford
Derek Bailey (29 January 1930– 25 December 2005) was an English avant-garde guitarist and a leading figure in the free improvisation movement.Born in Sheffield, Bailey studied music with C. H. C. Blitclifee and guitar with, amongst others, George Wing and John Duarte. In 1970, along with Tony Oxley and Evan Parker, he founded Incus Records, the first independent, musician-owned record company in Britain. In 1980, he wrote the book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice. This was adapted by UK's Channel 4 into a four-part TV series in the early '90s, edited and narrated by Bailey.
Han Bennink (born 17 April 1942) is a Dutch jazz drummer and percussionist. On occasion his recordings have featured him playing clarinet, violin, banjo and piano. Though perhaps best known as one of the pivotal figures in early European free jazz and free improvisation, Bennink has worked in essentially every school of jazz.
Polly Bradfield is an American violinist from the New York City free improvisation scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her closest musical associates were Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn. She also played on records by William Parker and Frank Lowe. Her music career ended when she moved to California sometime in the 1980s. Her last appearance on record was on Zorn's The Big Gundown in 1986.
Leslie Bostrom is a Professor of Art at Brown University who is primarily interested in painting, printmaking, and drawing. She received her BA from the University of Maine and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She describes her current work as anti-landscapes with incorporation of industrial components.
Theodore Bowing -
Mitchell Cashion was a true surrealist painter, poet and musician. He was, at one time, one of two Americans who were members of the formal French Surrealist organization, according to longtime friend Gary Taylor. His work was included in a book published in the 1980s, called "L'univers surrealiste" written by leading surrealist historian and art expert Jose Pierre, who also hosted Mitchell on a visit to Paris in 1995. Along with his painting and poetry, Cashion was regularly involved in various art activities in Tuscaloosa beginning in the early 1970s, including surrealist art.
Andrea Centazzo is an Italian American composer, percussionist and multimedia artist. In the early 70's he introduced a new concept of percussion playing, migrating from the Free Jazz to a new form of improvised music, defining itself. In the late 70's, Centazzo was one of the founders of the NY Downtown Music Scene with his seminal collaboration with John Zorn, Tom Corra, Eugene Chadbourne, Toshinori Kondo and others, documented in many albums. In 1976 he established ICTUS Records, one of the first musician operated labels, recording with Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Pierre Favre, Derek Bailey, John Zorn, Alvin Curran, Albert Mangelsdorff, Don Cherry and many others. He left the improvised music scene in 1986, moving shortly after to Los Angeles, CA and dedicating himself to composition and video making, Centazzo authored 3 operas, 2 symphonies and almost 500 compositions for all kind of ensembles, plus many award winning films. Back to live performing in 1998, he created solo concerts and solo multimedia concerts, playing live in sync with videos that he shoots and edits. His last project "Einstein's Cosmic Messengers" has been produced by LIGO, Caltech and NASA.
Eugene Chadbourne - Born January 4, 1954 in Mount Vernon, NY, Chadbourne was raised in Boulder, CO, At the age of 11, The Beatles inspired him to learn guitar; later exposure to Jimi Hendrix prompted him to begin experimenting with distortion pedals and fuzzboxes. in 1976, at which time he plunged headlong into the New York downtown music scene. After releasing his 1976 debut, Solo Acoustic Guitar, he began collaborating on purely improvisational music with the visionary saxophonist John Zorn and the acclaimed guitarist Henry Kaiser. Quickly, Chadbourne carved out a singular style, comprised of equal parts protest music, free improvisation, and avant-garde jazz, topped off with his absurd, squeaky vocals. A complete list of Chadbourne's countless subsequent collaborations and genre workouts is far too lengthy and detailed to exhaustively document, although in the early '80s he garnered some of his first significant attention as the frontman of Shockabilly, a rockabilly revisionist outfit which also featured the well-known producer Kramer. Following the group's breakup, Chadbourne turned to his own idiosyncratic brand of country and folk, accurately dubbed LSD C&W on a 1987 release, the same year he joined the members of Camper Van Beethoven for a one-off covers project. In addition, he recorded with artists ranging from Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp to Evan Johns and Jimmy Carl Black, the original drummer in the Mothers of Invention; in between, he continued exploring unique styles inspired by music from the four corners of the globe, all the while issuing a seemingly innumerable string of records, most of them on his own Parachute label.
Chris Cochrane is a songwriter and guitarist who has been playing in New York since the 1980s .
Chris has played with Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Billy Martin, Eszter Balint, Mike Patton, Henry Kaiser, Andrea Centazzo, Annie Gosfield, Tim Hodgkinson, Miguel Frasconi, Richard Buckner, Davey Williams, Ladonna Smith and Jim Pugliese. He has composed music for Dennis Cooper, John Jasperse, Neil Greenberg, Nayland Blake, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jennifer Monson and Circus Amok. He was in the bands No Safety and Curlew, and is currently in Collapsible Shoulder with Brian Chase, Kato Hideki and Kevin Bud Jones and Bee Line with Billy Martin and Kato Hideki.
Lesli Dalaba - Trumpet player Lesli Dalaba, a New York resident during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was a member of Wayne Horvitz, Elliot Sharp and La Monte Young’s ensembles. Despite keeping a low profile, throughout the 1980s she expanded and reconsidered the sound of the trumpet in a style that made the cerebral sound lyrical. Her first album, Trumpet Songs and Dances (Parachute, 1979), was followed by collected solos (Tanz Pesen, Barrytown) and duets (Two Up with Wayne Horvitz). Relocating to Seattle in 1989, she joined Jeff Greinke’s Land and in 1996 formed Radio Chongching.
Fred Frith - Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Fred Frith has been making noise of one kind or another for almost 50 years, starting with the iconic rock collective Henry Cow, which he co-founded with Tim Hodgkinson in 1968. Fred is best known as a pioneering electric guitarist and improviser, song-writer, and composer for film, dance and theater. Through bands like Art Bears, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, Keep the Dog, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet and Cosa Brava, he has stayed close to his roots in rock and folk music while branching out in many other directions.
On his guitar solo records: “Guitar Solos, my first solo LP, was released in 1974. In 1976 I decided to pursue the idea further and released an LP of solos by Hans Reichel, Derek Bailey, GF Fitzgerald and myself. Three years later after Henry Cow broke up and having moved to NY and started my own label, I released Guitar Solos 3, with Davey Williams, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Akira IIjima, Keith Rowe, Peter Cusack, Chip Handy and myself.”
Henry Kaiser (born September 19, 1952) is an American guitarist and composer, known as an idiosyncratic soloist, a sideman, an ethnomusicologist, and a film score composer. Recording and performing prolifically in many styles of music, Kaiser is a fixture on the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. He is considered a member of the "second generation" of American free improvisers.
Anna LeBaron A West Coast experimentalist who is an innovative performer on the harp as well as a composer embracing unusual challenges, Anne LeBaron’s compositions have been performed around the globe. Venues in Italy, Mexico, Sydney, Vienna, Sweden, Kazakhstan, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have programmed her works for chamber groups, opera, cantatas, and presented her as a performer. Her operas celebrate legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau, the American Housewife, and Aldous Huxley. Her current opera-in-progress, Huxley’s Last Trip, (formerly LSD: The Opera) was awarded one of the first Discovery Grants from Opera America. The orchestra includes instruments built by American composer and inventor Harry Partch. Excerpts have been performed at three LA venues: at the Wallis Annenberg Theater in Beverly Hills, at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, and at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles.
Craig Nutt - Painted and was playing free improvised music in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1972 when a job restoring antiques awakened an interest in furniture and craftsmanship. In time, he found ways to combine his skills as a furniture maker with the improvisational freedom he had applied to music and painting.For a decade, Craig divided his time between his studio practice and working for CERF+(as Director of Programs) to build a better safety net for artists in the United States. Today he creates imaginative furniture and sculpture in a studio he built, with help from his friends.
Bob Ostertag Composer, historian, builder, journalist, activist, kayak instructor—Bob Ostertag's work cannot easily be summarized or pigeon-holed. He has published more than twenty CDs of music, two DVDs, and five books. His writings on contemporary politics have been published on every continent and in many languages. Electronic instruments of his own design are at the cutting edge of both music and video performance technology. He has performed at music, film, and multi-media festivals around the globe. His radically diverse collaborators include the Kronos Quartet, postmodernist John Zorn, heavy metal star Mike Patton, transgender cabaret start Justin Vivian Bond, British guitar innovator Fred Frith, EDM star Rrose, and many others. He is rumored to have connections to the shadowy media guerrilla group The Yes Men. His He is currently a professor at the University of California at Davis. His most recent book is "Sex Science Self: A Social History of Estrogen, Testosterone, and Identity" (U Mass Press).
Evan Parker (born 5 April 1944) is a British saxophone player who plays free jazz.
Recording and performing prolifically with many collaborators, Parker was a pivotal figure in
the development of European free jazz and free improvisation
Peter Riley - Peter Riley (b. 1940, Stockport) first encountered poetry as a child through ‘bright schoolteachers introducing us to Eliot and Pound and encouraging exploration, which mostly took place in second-hand bookshops’. He has more than twenty publications to his name, including studies of burial mounds, village carols, lead mines and Transylvanian string bands: the sheer range of his work defies attempts to pigeon-hole him, although it is relatively safe to say that much of his work engages with landscape, often English, but also French, Italian or Transylvanian.
Keith Rowe (born 16 March 1940 in Plymouth, England) is an English free improvisation tabletop guitarist and painter. Rowe is a founding member of both the influential AMM in the mid-1960s and M.I.M.E.O. Having trained as a visual artist, Rowe's paintings have been featured on most of his own albums. After years of obscurity, Rowe has achieved a level of relative notoriety, and since the late 1990s has kept up a busy recording and touring schedule. He is seen as a godfather of EAI (electroacoustic improvisation), with many of his recent recordings having been released by Erstwhile Records.
Jess Marie Walker - Jess Marie's background varies as much as her interests. As a multidisciplinary artist her work is often highly collaborative and experimental. Her experiments with sound, form, line, and communications have been hosted in galleries and museums in Birmingham, Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco, among other cities and towns in the U.S. She currently lives and works in Montevallo, Alabama. Following is a selection of collaborative exhibitions, performances, and projects she has directed or participated in, listed chronologically from present to 1994 :: flusnoix, flusdrawxing, Pretty/Much Collective Mountain Maker Cohorts, HoWaYaDa, forestial A:1 G.O.R.A.inMotus, mono09pod, Up South dig; book nomenclature of my buckets sweatmilk productions deep red dirt, Anomally Local
John Zorn - (born September 2, 1953) is an American composer arranger, producer, saxophonist, and multi-instrumentalist with hundreds of album credits as performer, composer, and producer across a variety of genres, including jazz, rock, hardcore, classical, surf, metal, soundtrack, ambient, and improvised music.
Bailey, Derek, “Improvisation: its nature and practice in music”, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), 132
Choucha Nadia, “Surrealism & the Occult Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement”, (Destiny Books One Park Street Rochester, Vermont 05767, 1992)
Hagberg L. Garry, “Ensemble Improvisation, Collective Intention, and Group Attention”, in vol. 1 of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, eds. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, (New York: Oxford University, 2016), 481
LeBaron Anne, “Reflections of Surrealism in Postmodern Music”, in Postmodern Music Postmodern Thought, eds. Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner, (Routledge 29 West 35th Street New York, New York 10001, 2002), 41, 43, 37
Lewis E. George, “Gettin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination”, in The Improvisation Studies Reader Spontaneous Acts eds. Rebecca Caines and Ajay Heble, (Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN, 2015), 297
MacDonald Raymond and Wilson Graeme, “Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards, and the Universality of Improvisation”, in Vol. 2 The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, (New York: Oxford University, 2016) 116 - 117
Shattuck, Roger. "Introduction", in Exploits & Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician. A Neo-Scientific Novel (Exact Change Boston, 1996), ix
Smith, Ladonna. “Improvisation as Prayer. (n.d.)”, October 6, 2004, <http://the-improvisor.org/web%20ARTICLES/Improvisation_as_Prayer.htm>
Williams, Davey, Solo Gig, “Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation”. (Birmingham Alabama: Birdfeeder Edition, 2011), 10
 . LaDonna Smith, Improvisation as Prayer, October 6, 2004,
 . Davey Williams, Solo Gig: Essential Curiosities in Musical Free Improvisation (Birmingham, Alabama: Birdfeeder Edition, 2011).
 . Garry L. Hagberg, “Ensemble Improvisation, Collective Intention, and Group Attention”, in vol. 1 of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, eds. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, (New York: Oxford University, 2016), 481
 . Raymond MacDonald and Graeme Wilson, “Billy Connolly, Daniel Barenboim, Willie Wonka, Jazz Bastards, and the Universality of Improvisation”, in vol. 2 of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies eds. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (New York: Oxford University, 2016), 116
 . Ibid.
 . Derek Bailey, Improvisation Its Nature and Practice in Music, (Da Capo Press, 1993), 132
 . Anne LeBaron, “Reflections of Surrealism in Postmodern Music”, in Postmodern Music, Postmodern Thoughteds. Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner (New York: Routledge 2002), 41
 . George E. Lewis, “Gettin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination”, in The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts eds. Rebecca Caines and Ajay Heble (Oxfordshire: Routledge 2015), 297
 . Ibid.
 . LeBaron, Reflections of Surrealism, 42
 . Ibid.
 . Nadia Choucha, Surrealism & the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Birth of an Artistic Movement, (Vermont: Destiny Books 1992), 1
 . Ibid.
 . André Breton, “Manifestoes of Surrealism”, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969), 26
 . LeBaron, Reflections of Surrealism, 28
 . Ibid
 . LeBaron, Reflections of Surrealism, 37
 . LeBaron, Reflections of Surrealism, 41
 . Roger Shattuck, "Introduction", in Exploits & Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician. A Neo-Scientific Novel (Boston: Exact Change, 1996), ix
 . Excerpt from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pataphysics
 . Escerpt form https://www.georgecartwright.com/curlew-discography/
 . LaDonna Smith, Improvisation in Childhood Music Training and Techniques for Creative Music Making, not dated, <http://the-improvisor.org/web%20ARTICLES/Improvisation%20&%20Education.html>
 . Ibid
 . Williams, Solo Gig, 88
 . Kevin Whitehead, Davey Williams: Dancing about the Architecture, 2012, <http://www.pointofdeparture.org/PoD39/PoD39DaveyWilliams.html>