Shortly before the fifth annual Drone Not Drones¹ in late January, Jonathan Kaiser (photo credit above) and MirrorLab Studios put together a show of several improvisational luminaries: Ka Baird and Taralie Peterson—both seminal experimentalists of Spires that in the Sunset Rise who were in town to play Drone Not Drones—alongside some of Minneapolis’ most prolific and interesting free improvisors Paul Metzger, John Saint Pelvyn, Elaine Evans, and Tim Glenn.² This kind of one-off spontaneous meeting of musicians is precisely the kind of thing I’m trying to capture on this site, so I gladly hauled my rig to the White Page to record.
They played in pairs, and then together as one overgrown ensemble. A couple sets involved musicians who’ve rarely, if ever, played together. That’s not necessarily an issue when you’re both improvising, but it made everyone’s remarkable musical chemistry all the more impressive.
It’s a bold thing to make a noise with your instrument or voice with someone else, not knowing how they are going to fit in with the choice you’ve just made. It requires all involved to commit to a shared trajectory that doesn’t have anything to bind it to the familiar. It requires moving like birds in a flock, reacting and following more than directing, yet a direction arises. It is a skill, as much as it is a willingness to relinquish the idea of your own skills, that allows this to happen.
As a listener, free improvisational music of this sort requires you to deliberately push yourself out of the role of familiar emotional response from music and become part of the process yourself. Your mindset greatly alters what you’re hearing; you might find that something sounds completely different upon second listening. At one point the music might seem meandering and aimless, and you might catch your mind wandering. The music becomes the background of a deep thought reverie, when suddenly you wake up and realize you’re enveloped in a strange, unsettling texture of sound.
The especially weird thing is when you listen to an improvised piece enough times that you become familiar with each fluttering twist, and you begin to anticipate it the way you would any composed music you know well. What was once a fleeting whim of someone else’s subconscious now occupies a permanent place in your tonal memory. Fragments that at first seemed atonal and abstract take on a significance beyond traditional melody. At that point you likely now know it more intimately than the performer themself ever did.
There’s something inherently playful about this music, even when it sounds gripping or frightening or austere. It can’t rely on standard musical tropes to elicit a particular emotional response; it has to invent its own language on-the-spot and you have to be willing to try and learn it along with the performer.
I hope you take a moment to close your eyes and experience these performances. They’ll take you somewhere, and you’ll forget where you started by the finish.
¹ Drone Not Drones has become the premiere experimental/improvisational performance of the midwest (Chicago included, prove you’ve got something better, you soggy deep-dishes) not only bringing together legends like Nels Cline or Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth alongside fledgling basement projects, but literally letting them play one continuous piece together for 28 goddamn hours. Go if you can.
² I know this is a lot of names—If you are unfamiliar with any or all of them, I apologize for the arcane nature of this sentence. I include them all (with links) for the sake of giving credit and paying reverence to people I admire or have just learned of, not to name-drop or intimidate newcomers with a slew of artists they feel like they’re supposed to know. I often experience the latter when exploring new music, but I think being warm and welcoming is especially important in weird-ass, unapproachable music. I agree with the dad in this American Choppers meme.
Taralie Peterson and Elaine Evans
These two played the first set of the night, weaving tense and trembling musical lines from alternating cello, modified autoharp, terse vocals, bass clarinet, regular clarinet, clarinet without a mouthpiece, clarinet with only a mouthpiece, and simply mouth. Also some children in the audience piped in half way through.
Evans and Peterson create passages that sound like a delapotated chamber orchestra, climbing quietly until they quickly break apart into chaos. Peterson’s vocals are chilling, and gives the entire performance a darkly spiritual quality. I especially loved when Peterson picked up her autoharp at the end. (you can hear a lot more of that specifically in her great Drone Not Drones set a couple days later.)
Ka Baird and Paul Metzger
Baird and Metzger’s improvisation pushes deep into a thicket of darkness, and then ignites the whole brushpile into fiery oblivion. Then they let the embers settle back down into the earth until they gradually cool to nothing.
I’ve seen Metzger many times around Minneapolis, but only solo, so it was great seeing him interact with another musician. Baird’s percussive flute and possessed vocals seemed to conjure a more tranquil side out of him.
Ka Baird, Taralie Peterson, Elaine Evans, Paul Metzger, John Saint Pelvyn, and Tim Glenn
This set bordered on the wild, freer side of psychedelic jazz of the likes of Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane. This one gets especially dense and otherworldly; all six musicians did an amazing job weaving around each other to create something pretty alien.