Improvising in the Kitchen February 17, 1972

A plunk from the piano; then soft whooshes of wind through the trumpet; then a sustained note on the string bass. The trombone enters on an agitated note, and the pianist responds with a few sharp sounds. (The description refers to the beginning of a concert of improvisation presented at the Kitchen on February 6 by Frederic Rzewski, piano; Jeffrey Levine, bass; Garrett List, trombone; and Gordon Mumma, trumpet.)

Now the bass is more full and the trombone plays a soft gurgling 7solo. Then they both stop. The pianist hits a biting chord and everyone plays sharp sounds for a moment. Then the interest shifts to grating sounds on the bass, and the trumpet responds with a high whining accompaniment. (No one could compose music quite like this. Only in improvisations do musicians respond to each other in such a personal way.)

A trombone solo emerges, very fast, and the bass player is plucking a very energetic line. It sounds vaguely like jazz. The trumpet player even begins clicking out rhythms on his valves. Then it is over, almost as abruptly as it began, and the music reverts to soft nondescript sounds. (It is strange how energy can come and go so quickly. I have improvised a lot myself, sometimes with these same players, but have never been able to figure out how it happens.)

After a while fast things begin, and the players are scattering notes all over the place. The piano begins a loud fast repeated note which spurs everyone on, and things are very exciting for a while. Then everything calms down drastically, and all that remains is a very soft trill on the piano. It feels like intermission. A few people in the audience change seats and the musicians relax for a while, leaving the trill all by itself. (Maybe the players had planned to take sort of a break, but probably not. Things like that just happen in improvising sessions.)

Some time later the piano introduces some very loud repeated-note patterns and the brass respond with their first loud notes of the evening. The pianist fades into accompaniment, enjoying the fine brass sounds. But they are unable or unwilling to continue without his support, and revert back to soft things. (The pianist seemed to me to be calling most of the shots, but maybe not. It is so difficult to tell who really initiates something.)

The concert has been going almost an hour now, and the music is very quiet and relaxed again. The trombone suddenly introduces a rhythmic pattern, which he repeats over and over. But no one follows him and it starts to sound a little silly so he stops. (It is interesting to consider how differently the rest of the concert might have turned out if even one of the other players had followed the trombonist at that moment.)

Now the bass begins to predominate with scratchy squealing sounds. The pianist pulls out a tin whistle and the others follow him. For a while there is a very unified feeling with all those whistles, and the sound makes a very effective accompaniment for the bass solo, which is still going. The trombonist begins passing out whistles to the audience. (The musicians had obviously planned all this, but it didn’t seem phony. Some members of the audience became quite involved in playing the whistles.)

By now everyone has grown tired of blowing whistles, and there is a loud blast from the trombone. The piano responds with a loud chord. Another blast on the trombone elicits another response from the piano. Soon all the musicians are playing short blasts, separated by silence or near silence. This pattern is quite effective, and with variations, remains interesting for some time. Then there is a soft glissando on the bass, a few quick notes on the piano, and everyone senses that the concert is over. (Perhaps I should say whether I liked or disliked the concert, but I can’t boil it down to that. Improvisations like this are like the weather, as far as I am concerned, because no one actually controls what happens. It just happens.)