August 9, 2019

I’m looking to revive and revamp this space, and use it for different purposes. It’s been almost a year since my last post. Watch this space for, hopefully, more frequent and different content. Thanks.


October 10, 2018

Esperanto in American art music

Among my many nonmusical interests is a semi-serious study of languages. I have studied, to varying degrees, Brazilian Portuguese, Japanese, and Esperanto. The last of these is the topic of this post.

To those who don’t know, Esperanto is a constructed language originally invented by a Polish Jewish ophthalmologist named Ludwig Zamenhoff. He published the first book of Esperanto grammar, Unua Libro (literally First Book) in 1877. In this book he laid out the essential rules and goals for what he hoped would become the international auxiliary language. While this language has become somewhat widely used (it is currently the most spoken artificial language on Earth with rough estimates of as many as 2 million speakers worldwide), it is still somewhat obscure to the general public. If the existence of Esperanto is somewhat obscure, then its usage in American music is almost unheard of. To my knowledge there are only two American composers of significance that have used this language in a substantial way: Lou Harrison and David Gaines.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) is one of my favorite composers. His incredible eclecticism allowed him to create a huge body of endlessly fresh musical works in a multitude of styles. It was studying the music and life of Harrison that introduced me to Esperanto in the first place. Among Harrison’s music to utilize the language are several instrumental works with Esperanto titles (i.e. Pacifika Rondo and Serenado por Gitaro), but his masterpiece is the massive choral work La Koro Sutra. Scored for 100 piece chorus, percussion, harp, organ, and American Gamelan (a version of an Indonesian percussion orchestra constructed from scrap metal), La Koro Sutra is an Esperanto translation of The Heart Sutra, a 7th century Buddhist text, has 8 movements, and is about 30 minutes long.

David Gaines (b.1961) is an American composer known for his orchestration abilities and eclectic style. Esperanto plays a large role in his music (the home page of his website, which I’ll link below is bilingual in English and Esperanto) and, like Harrison, he has written instrumental works with Esperanto titles and vocal music with Esperanto texts. His most significant piece to utilize Esperanto is his Symphony No. 1, a huge piece for full orchestra and mezzo-soprano vocalist. The text of the piece is original and, at the time of this writing, I have not read it and therefore cannot comment on its themes.

I have been studying Esperanto, on and off, for about 4 years, and have recently begun to write vocal music with both original and translated Esperanto texts. I hope to continue this work and to someday produce something of the caliber of the work of Harrison and Gaines. Thanks for reading.


La Koro Sutro

David Gaines’s website:

Gaines Symphony No. 1:


September 26, 2018

Quirks in composing

I’m a composer. I compose. Sometimes the act of composing is very straight forward (I sit down and draw dots and lines on lined paper), sometimes it is not. I don’t draw musical scores everyday, but I think the mental processes I undergo on a near constant basis constitute some form of composition. I don’t know. What I do know is that ‘the process’ of composing can look fairly strange, and it’s some of those quirky moments I’d like to write about today.

  1. There’s a note in the cup holder of my car. The words at the top read “Ukulele tunings,” and the rest of the page is covered with a crudely drawn staff, a crudely drawn treble clef, and some crudely drawn note heads. I don’t play ukulele or know anyone who does. I have no plans to write a piece for ukulele.
  2. There’s a book in my bag titled “Composing for Japanese Instruments.” It was written by Minoru Miki and translated into English by Marty Regan. In this book there is a section on the koto (a traditional Japanese zither that can have a varying number of strings depending on the model), and in this section I have done copious amounts of underlining and bookmarking. I wrote a piece for gayageum (a Korean zither that can have a varying number of strings depending on the model) three weeks ago. I have not written anything for koto.
  3. On the desktop of my laptop, I have a folder labeled “Scores.” In that folder, there’s a folder labeled “Scrapped.” In that folder, there are three pieces in various stages of completion that I have decided not to finish or to tell anyone that they exist. I submitted one of the those pieces to a call for scores twice. 
  4. There’s a work in progress on my desktop that will probably enter the “Scrapped” folder soon.
  5. There’s another work in progress on my desktop I recently took out of the “Scrapped” folder, and I may put it back in after I do some light revising.
  6. One of the first pieces of music I ever wrote was for voice and guitar. The rights to set the poetry were gifted to me by the person who asked me to write the music. I had never written for guitar before, but my composition teacher at the time was a guitar player, so he was able to help me make the part playable. After the piece was finished and I gave it to the performers, I quickly learned that my composition teacher was a much more skilled guitar player than the person I was writing for. The singer didn’t have time to learn her part, so the song was premiered with a flute instead (it was never performed sung). The commissioner ended up not liking the piece and my permission to use the poetry was revoked. If I knew where the electronic file for that piece was, I’d put it in the “Scrapped” folder, even though I kind of remember liking it.
  7. A few weeks ago a composer/performer whom I greatly admired suggested I look into writing electronic music. He likes to play this kind of music and said that there would be opportunities for me to get performances if I wrote some. He suggested I use a free, open-source program called “Pure data.” I’ve since downloaded the software and have watched some tutorials on how to use it. Yesterday I made a patch that simultaneously loops two short melodies over-and-over until I tell it to stop. We’ll see if I ever open the program again.
  8. One of my earliest musical memories is of hating practicing the saxophone. Instead of practicing, I would improvise and try to write down what I had played. I didn’t write my first “composition” until I was 20 years old.

I do not currently have any compositional projects of significant ambition in progress, nor do I have any commissions to work on. I do not know when the next project will start, or when (or if) the next commission will come. I haven’t sat down and drawn dots and lines on lined paper for probably close to week now. It doesn’t matter. I’m a composer. Thanks for reading.


September 12, 2018

Dalen Recommends (Volume 3)

“In Praise of Shadows” is a short book/long essay written in 1933 by Japanese novelist, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (first English translation published in 1977), and is one of the major non-academic studies on traditional Japanese aesthetics. In it, Tanizaki contrasts Japanese and Western aesthetics by framing the West as being obsessed with progress and Japan as being rooted in tradition. This basic framework allows the author to make basic comparisons about everything from soup bowls to paper, making the case that Western modernity is chrome, gaudy, and impersonal; while Japanese tradition values and exemplifies darkness, warmth, and mystery.

The opening section is probably the most informative about Tanizaki’s thoughts on the modernization of Japan. He describes building a new house and the struggles he has trying to reconcile modern amenities (like a gas stove and glass windows), with traditional building practices (Japanese houses, in the author’s youth, had paper walls and sunken hearths to heat the house by burning wood). My personal favorite passage is about toilets; according to the author, traditional Japanese houses sequestered the toilet away from the rest of the house and it was surrounded by nature (like an outhouse, practically). Tanizaki bemoans how the Western toilet is too white, too clean, too explicit in that the shine of the porcelain and the tiles that allow the user to actually see whether or not the restroom is dirty. What makes this passage particularly telling of its place in history is the moment in which Tanizaki yields and accepts the very thing he just railed against: the very cleanliness he just derided for being too explicit. He acknowledges that some things should not be mysterious of left to the imagination…

Tanizaki’s essay is a collection of insights like the one pertaining to toilets and I cannot think of a better way to sum it up other than to say that it is an unflinching love letter and mournful swan song to traditional Japanese aesthetics. He knows that further modernization is inevitable, and uses his platform to remind his people of what they’re losing and tell us living now what we missed out on. A full text is available for download and paperback copies are available on Amazon. I’ll include links below. Thanks for reading.



Amazon link:


August 29, 2018

George Walker: An Appreciation

George Walker, a composer and virtuoso pianist, died August 23, 2018 at 96 years of age. A curious age to die at, as 1996 was the year he became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his orchestral composition Lilacs. In the days since his passing, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about Dr. Walker, his music, and his achievements. The more I read, the more I realize that this fabulous musician’s compositions are sadly underrated and underperformed; but to those that are familiar with his work, intellect, and talent, he was one of the greatest forces in American music in the 20th century.

George Walker was born in 1922 in Washington D.C. He graduated from high school at the age of 14, and that same year gave his first public piano recital. He graduated from Oberlin College at 18, receiving the highest honors in his conservatory class. After Oberlin, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music, studying piano, chamber music, and composition, and in 1945 became the first black graduate of the institution. Other “firsts” by Walker include being the first black soloist to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra (in 1945) and the first black recipient of a doctoral degree and an Artist Diploma from the Eastman School of Music (in 1955 and ‘56 respectively).

All of the information in the previous paragraph came from Dr. Walker’s website and could have been found in any of the many obituaries that have appeared on the internet in the week since his passing. With the rest of this post though I want to dive into another aspect of Walker, one that is the reason I personally have heard of him. Earlier I mentioned that Walker was underrated, and this is true in the sense that his music is rarely performed and rarely heard by the general public (Walker told the Washington Post in 2015: “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner, But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. My publisher didn’t have sense enough to push. It materialized in nothing.”), but to those in the New Music community, George Walker was a legendary figure and considered an elder statesmen. Dr. Walker was at least in his 70’s and had been teaching and influencing composers for decades when the internet became widely used, and was therefore perfectly poised to have a strong presence on websites dedicated to new classical music. The internet is full of interviews and videos with George Walker. These interviews range from technical discussions on composing and playing the piano to pontifications on the creative process and the power and purpose of music. They form an incredible resource for anyone interested not only in his music, but in the art music of the 20th century.

Appreciating George Walker’s music is easy, it is rich and dense, lyrical and powerful; but for George Walker the man, appreciation gives way to admiration. His commitment to writing and performing music (according to his son, Gregory Walker, his father was still writing and preparing to record more piano music at the time of his death) can only be described as legendary. And in the face of that, I can only think of one thing to say: rest in peace George Walker (1922-2018).


George Walker: Concise and Precise:


August 15, 2018

On Bi-musicality (and me)

For this post, I’ve decided not to talk about improvisation or to recommend a book or piece of music like I’ve done in the past. This time, like with my post on improvisation, I want to talk about a concept that I think about, actively research, and want to devote a significant portion of my artistic and academic career to. That concept is bi-musicality.

Bi-musicality was coined as term by ethnomusicologist and composer Mantle Hood in 1960 in his article, “The Challenge Of Bi-Musicality,” and is a similar concept to bilingualism (which I also have a passion for, and hope to post about at a later date) in that it concerns the notion of familiarity and proficiency in two distinct systems. This notion is most frequently applied to the concept to musicality and musicianship in the sense that the bi-musical individual has a high degree of musical competence in two different ethnic musical traditions. This is not to say that bi-musicality cannot be achieved through the mastery of different genres within a single ethnic system or origin (i.e. western classical, jazz, broadway, rock, etc.). I am simply saying that becoming bi-musical in a different ethnic tradition from my own is what I am interested in.

The concept of musical competence is important when discussing bi-musicality and the degree to which it can be said to have been achieved by a given individual at a given time. Alison Tokita, in her article “Bi-musicality in modern Japanese culture,” defines musical competence as a continuum with three distinct levels. The first level is ‘aesthetic competence,’ and concerns one’s ability to listen to and appreciate the music of another culture. This level can also include literacy in the given tradition’s notation, if notation exists. The second level is ‘performative competence,’ and should be fairly self-explanatory in the sense that it concerns one’s ability to perform the music in question. The third level of competence is ‘generative or productive competence’ and focuses on one’s ability to create, compose, or teach the music in question. This paragraph has given a simple summary of only one part of Tokita’s article; I’ll include a link to download the full text for anyone interested.

In discussing the topic of bi-musicality and how it relates to my goals, I want to give an example of an individual whose career serves as an inspiration to me. James Nyoraku Schlefer is an American composer, teacher, and shakuhachi grand master. According to his website (again, link below), he first heard the shakuhachi in 1979 while earning a master’s degree in musicology. After hearing the flute in recital, Schlefer was offered the opportunity to try it and, upon failing to produce any sound on it at all, decided to dedicate his life to mastering it. He would go on to earn a grand master diploma in 2001 (along which came his middle name/honorific) and now teaches shakuhachi and music history in New York City, while also operating Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a non-profit he started “to further the awareness and appreciation of traditional Japanese music in Western culture and commission and produce new works and concerts that integrate contemporary Japanese and Western classical music” (from Schlefer’s website).

Schlefer’s career serves as an inspiration and potential model for things I want to achieve. I consider myself to still be in the very early stages, as at the moment I have neither seriously studied an instrument outside of the western tradition (I played in a Balinese gamelan for three semesters in graduate school and own two bamboo flutes of indeterminate origin…), nor decided which, if any instrument, I am interested in attempting to learn at a high level. At the moment I have focused more on composing and have written some music for non-western instruments with more planned. For years I’ve had a vague idea about the things I wanted to do and study, but my recent reading on bi-musicality and intercultural composition (another topic for another day) have helped to give a clarity and focus to my goals that I hope to pursue for years to come. Thank you for reading.

Tokita’s article:

Schlefer’s website:

“The Challenge Of Bi-Musicality” by Mantle Hood:


August 1, 2018

3 Views of Improvisation

Last week I co-led and participated in an evening of group improvisation. I was one of two self-identifying musicians in the group, the other being a friend of mine from college who plays tuba and composes. The rest of the participants, including my co-leader, were artists of other media, mostly visual arts. The improvisations we performed and recorded were varied both in content and approach. With this post, I’d like to discuss and reflect on the different approaches we utilized.

  1. Written-style Pieces

Of the recorded improvisations we performed last week, 2 of them could have been written as strict pieces (something I might do for my portfolio someday…), with a set of rules providing structure and allowing for experimentation and expression. The first of these was an exploration of shifting patterns in which each performer was instructed to repeat a musical pattern while the leader (me, in this instance) directed the performers to either expand, or diminish as they saw fit. The piece challenged the performers to focus on their own pattern so as to keep it consistent, while also listening to the group in order to understand how they fit into the resultant music.

The second improvisation piece involved analyzing the technical capabilities of our chosen instruments, and creating a mental list of different ways they could be played (for example, I played a flute which could make long sounds, short sounds, accented sounds, fast trills between multiple sounds, etc.). The primary rule of the piece was that, among all of the performers, no individuals could play their instrument in the same way at the same time. This forced us to listen and react to one another (for example, if I’m playing long sounds, and another person who was previously playing short sounds starts to play long sounds, I have to change the way I’m playing). The resulting sound is that of constant change on both the individual and global layers.

Performing improvisation from the approach of highly codified written-style pieces helped ground us as performers. It forced us to listen to ourselves and to each other with objectivity and to react to both auditory and visual signals. These pieces were strict in their rules, but the high level of choice given to the performers ensured that they could never sound the same twice.

  1. Guided Improvisation

Guided improvisation can be very similar to written-style improvisation. The main difference is that guided improvisation works best when there are fewer rules that are loosely defined. Guided improvisation also always requires a defined leader. Last week, when we recorded an improvisation of this type, we designated our leader and gave ourselves one rule: all sounds must be vocal. The result was minutes of reacting to auditory and visual cues from the leader, and a thick sound world built from sighs, laughter, repeating nonsense phrases (in multiple languages), and the barking of neighborhood dogs who couldn’t figure out what we were doing.

Improvising in this way was incredibly freeing. The rules gave us defined parameters of what sounds we could and could not make, and allowing the leader to shape the dynamic curve and density of sound allowed us, as performers, to cut loose and really focus on the sounds we were making and finding potential interactions with each other.

  1. Prompts

The remaining improvisations we recorded that night were based on prompts we drew from a bucket. These prompts were from a collection my co-leader has been keeping and adding to for years, and includes prompts that are descriptive like “as fast as possible” or “melodic;” aesthetic/emotional like “fear of heights” or “homesick;” and some that are abstract to the point that almost any result could be viewed as a viable interpretation, like “my skin is light.”

Using prompts was a great way to give an improvisation a jumping-off point while still allowing a lot of room for the performers’ personalities and artistic aesthetics to shine through. It was even better when we had multiple performers draw different prompts and perform without revealing what their prompt said until after they were finished.

When all was said and done, we had recorded at least an hour of improvised music varying from prompted solo, to guided septet. It was evening full of exploration and learning, and I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have been a part of it. I’m also leading another one tonight. Maybe I’ll tell you how it went in my next post… As always, thanks for reading, and please use the Contact page to let me know what you thought of this and past posts, and if you have any ideas for what future posts should be about. See you next time.


July 18, 2018

Dalen recommends (Volume 2)

“Talking Music: Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations of American Experimental Composers” by William Duckworth (published 1999)

Throughout the the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, American composer and teacher William Duckworth (1943-2012) conducted interviews with titans of mid-to-late 20th century American art music. The book includes edited transcripts from his interviews with the artists listed in the title, but also includes conversations with Lou Harrison, Milton Babbitt, Pauline Oliveros, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Glenn Branca, John Zorn, and others.

I’m recommending this book for several reasons. The first is simply because several of the composers featured in it were ones that I had heard of, but knew little to nothing about. The opportunity to read about those composers (as well as the ones I was already more familiar with, in terms of their music and what publicly available information I had already absorbed) in their own words gave an understanding of their art, and attitudes toward art that really allowed me to question my own aesthetics and working methods in ways that will (hopefully) be contributing to my growth as an artist for years to come.

The second reason I’m recommending this book is that it helped remind me that there is no one way to live the life as an artist. Reading about how Pauline Oliveros made a living as a file clerk, Glenn Branca played in a noise band in New York City, and Philip Glass drove a taxi in between tours with his ensemble helped paint a composite picture of true artists that only concerned themselves with making art, by whatever means necessary.

The third, and probably the most important, reason I’m recommending this book is because it is well written and fun to read. Duckworth was a very intelligent and sensitive interviewer and writer (both in words and music, but a discussion of his music will have to be a different blog post), and he makes it very clear in every interview what he does and does not know previously about his subject, and he is not afraid to be the dumbest person in the room or asking a “dumb” question.

“Talking Music: Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations of American Experimental Composers” is available on Amazon ( As always, thanks for reading, and please feel free to use the contact page to suggest a topic for my next post or if you want to make an opinion known about this or any previous post.


July 4, 2018

Three “Games” for teaching and performing improvisation

In this post, I’d like to talk about some of the “games” I use to teach and perform free improvisation. A post explaining what I mean by “free improvisation” was published on this blog on June 6, 2018, and can be found below. In this post I use the terms “game” and “piece” interchangeably. I do this because I feel each of these entries can be used both as games for fun and for education, and as performable works in a concert of improvised music. 


This piece was written by John Stevens, so I’ll let him explain it. The following text comes from his book “Search and Reflect”:

“‘Sustain Piece’ is primarily to do with breathing, Breath is, of course, fundamental to all our activities – without it, the activity is non-existent (and so are we). Here is an opportunity to concentrate on breathing in a relaxed yet intense way, which will involve us, almost as a by-product, in music making. Individually, each person sustains a note which is as long as their breath length. Collectively, the piece sustains itself – although it moves in waves, it sounds continual; because individual breath lengths vary, there will always be some sound.”

Essentially, what Stevens asks of us with this piece is to perform sound while we exhale, and to perform silence while we inhale. The key to this piece is that each participant acts completely independently. It is most successful when the performers do not make an effort to synchronize their breathing. Because of this lack of synchronization, the biggest challenge in performing this piece is knowing when it’s over. I like to use this piece at the start of teaching sessions, because of how it forces us to focus on our breath, on the sounds we are making, and how the sounds we are making are relating to the sounds the other people in the room are making. I also like to do this piece in teaching sessions at least twice; the first time purely vocal, and then allowing the participants to use instruments (if they have any) on the second go.


This game was one I most recently used for a very specific purpose. In the fall of 2017, I was working with a community theater production, and the director wanted an improvisational performance piece in one of the first scenes. This scene was later codified as a performable piece and is listed in my portfolio as “Marley is dead.” In this scene, each actor was given a phrase to repeat and a character to embody. In order to help the actors get the most out of a single phrase, I encouraged them to consider each element of the phrase as an element that could be transformed or exploited for their unique qualities. 

For example: one of the phrases was “No doubt about that.” The first thing I encouraged the actors to do was to move the stress from word to word, therefore changing the sound of the phrase without changing the meaning. This exercise changed “No doubt about that” to “No doubt about that” (and so on). After that, I encouraged and demonstrated how the phrase could be transformed in other ways, including elongating words, syllables, or even individual sounds (the “th” in “that” is a good sound to elongate for a menacing effect); and exaggerating individual sounds (“doubt,” “about,” and “that” all end in hard in hard consonant sounds, making them easy targets for extreme and theatrical emphasis).

The primary benefit of this game was that it helped the actors to see their assigned phrases as a source of exploration and unlimited sonic potential, but it can also be applied to improvising without a text. The key to being successful with this approach is to “use every part of the animal,” and allow every particle to be a transformable object equally capable and worthy of being fully explored.

Call and Response (and Variations):

This is a game, when I use for teaching, that I like to do in three phases. Phase one has all the participants standing in a circle. One participant will make eye contact with another, perform a short musical phrase, and then the participant they are making eye contact with will perform the same phrase (to the best of their abilities). That participant then makes eye contact with another, and the process repeats for as long as the leader allows, or the participants are willing to play.

The second phase is very similar to the first. The same formula of eye contact, call, and response is followed, but in this phase the performer who repeats the phrase should do so backwards. Some tips for these phases is to try to encourage the participants to keep their phrases short and simple. Nothing interrupts the flow of the game like someone taking a 30 second solo and expecting the next person to both remember the whole of it, and then recreate it perfectly.

The third phase is divided into two phases. The first third phase again follows the steps of the first and second, but this time the participant being performed at should not repeat what they just heard, but respond to it by either improvising an extension or completion of, or compliment to, it. The second third phase breaks the circle, groups participants into pairs (or other small groups, depending on the number and comfort level of the participants), and has them perform the first part of phase three independently from the other pairs (or groups). This creates a great cacophony and a great lot of fun. Added fun can be had by shuffling the groups on the fly to create new pairs.

This game works as a great rapport and team building exercise, and forces participants to make quick decisions when improvising in groups.

When performed as a piece and not in an educational setting, I will usually skip phases one and two, or go through them very quickly.

This post ended up being much longer than I thought it would, so I’ll be ending it here. I hope these games can be useful to you for teaching and performing. As always, thank you for reading and please feel free to use the contact page to let me know what you think about this post, previous posts, or what future posts should be about.

Link for “Search and Reflect”:


June 20, 2018

Dalen recommends (Volume 1)

Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison

American composers John Cage (1912-1992) and Lou Harrison (1917-2003) collaboratively composed this short piece in 1941. The two men agreed to each write 200 measures of music for two percussionists (for a total of four performers). Other than that, nothing was agreed upon prior to the composition process. In its current arrangement, the music for performers 1 and 3 is Cage’s; 2 and 4, Harrison’s.

Why recommend this piece?:

I’ve had a great appreciation for these two composers ever since I first heard their music in my early 20’s, so you can imagine how exciting it was to find out about and listen to something that they had written collaboratively! One of the things that I find most attractive about this piece is that it doesn’t sound like it was written by two people, but, if you really know the two composers’s styles and compositional methods, you can pick out which parts were written by which composer with relative ease.



Note: This was originally written for Italian Friend ArtRuckus, an organization I am a founding member of. More information at:


June 6, 2018

What I mean when I say “improvisation”

I want to take a moment to explain what I mean when I talk about my work as an improviser, because I’m afraid of certain misconceptions that may exist. The main point I’m trying to set up is: I do not play jazz. Jazz is an important idiom with a rich and complex history, legendary figures, and arguments about what it even is. The type of improvising I do and teach is usually described as “Free Improvisation,” and sometimes (incorrectly) identified as “Free Jazz,” which is its own thing entirely. I personally prefer the term “Free Association Improvisation,” but I (to my knowledge) am the only person saying that…

This particular school of improvisation has established itself as an independent genre, and has a rich and complex history, legendary figures, and arguments about what it is and who is really doing it. Now, I’d like to share some links and introduce 2 of those legendary figures that have made a large impact on my work.

Derek Bailey:

Derek Bailey (1930-2005) was one of the leading performers, theorists, and historians of free improvisation. He was one of the most prominent practicers of improvisation to push back on the idea that this style of music is a sub-genre of jazz. Among his scholarly offerings include a book and a documentary series on the history of improvisation both as its own genre, and as it relates to other approaches to musicking.

John Stevens:

There’s a lot to talk about in this clip, but I want to focus on the drummer. John Stevens (1940-1994) was an English percussionist, ensemble leader, and educator. While he started out in jazz, he quickly became one of the leading free improvisers in England. He started performing while being a student at the Royal Air Force Academy of Music, and started the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with fellow student Trevor Watts (an important-to-the-genre saxophonist). The Spontaneous Music Ensemble would include many influential musicians during its lifetime, including Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker.

As an educator, Stevens was involved with an organization that taught music in youth clubs, mental health institutions, and prisons around England. Notes from his teaching sessions would later be compiled into the book ‘Search and Reflect,’ which contains many pieces and suggestions for teaching and performing group improvisations (some of which I still use in both capacities).

A full history and list of important free improvising musicians is beyond the scope of a blog post, so I’ll sign off here. Please check out the links below for more info, and I’ll throw in some bonus links about other musicians I didn’t feature. Thanks for reading and, as always, feel free to use the contact tab to tell me what you thought, if I left out any vital information, or if you have suggestions on something else I should talk about. See you next time.


Other important Improvisers:

John Zorn – performer/composer

George Lewis – performer/composer/educator/scholar

Art Ensemble of Chicago – performers/composers

Anthony Braxton – performer/composer

Cecil Taylor – performer/composer

Keith Jarrett – performer/composer

Tatsuya Nakatani – performer/creator of the Nataktani Gong Orchestra

Ken Aldcraft – performer/composer

Rob Wallace – performer/scholar

Evan Parker – performer

And many, many more…



Bailey’s book:

Bailey’s documentary:

Search and Reflect:


Bonus Links:

Charles Ives, improviser:

Olivier Messiaen, improvisation on a gregorian chant (setting up this clip: there is an entire school of organ playing (mostly in Paris) built around improvising accompaniment for services of the Catholic mass. Messiaen had a position doing this every Sunday for almost 60 years):

Nakatani Gong Orchestra (with Butoh dancer):


May 23, 2018

Wherein the point of this blog is explained

Hi everyone, and welcome to my blog. I wanted to use this first post to talk a little about what you can expect from this page of my website. I present myself as a composer, saxophonist, and improviser, so I’ll definitely touch on what each of those things means to me in future posts.

I’m also much more than those three words. I’m a reader and a doodler. I’m almost always thinking about something. At any given time there’s a lot of dumb stuff in my head, threatening to make itself known. I’ll try to curate my thoughts here, and I’ll try to do it at least semi-regularly (that I suspect, will be hardest of all).

I don’t want this first post to be too long, so I think I’ll sign off here. However, I would like to welcome anyone reading this to feel free to ask a question, or suggest a topic using the contact tab at the top of the page. I can’t promise I’ll respond to everything, but I will read, appreciate, and contemplate everything to the best of my ability. Thanks for reading.

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