Monday, July 15, 2013

Point to Line at the National Flute Association Convention

Point to Line, my flute duo with flutist and composer LisaBost-Sandberg will give a short performance-lecture of our own compositions at the National Flute Association  convention in New Orleans. My performance at the convention is funded in part by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. I received a Professional Development Grant for travel and lodging expenses.

At 10am on Sunday, August 11th, I will perform Transition for Solo Flute (featured on my album, A Moment in Mythica), and Lisa will perform her solo flute work, Fluxion. Between our performances, we will discuss our compositions, their relationships to improvisation, and other compositional techniques. We will end the performance-lecture by improvising together. We will be featured on a larger program called, “Solo Concert: Beatboxing, Extended Techniques, and More.” 

This concert is unique as works by living flutist-composer-performers are in the minority of convention programming. Point to Line’s spot is further atypical at an NFA convention because it will feature improvisation! Lisa and I formed Point to Line in the fall of 2010 because of our mutual interest in contemporary music for flute.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Improvised Music: Is it Jazz?

In both Demolition Duo presentations at Clackamas Community College (CCC) on May 10th, and at Portland State University (PSU)  on May 22nd, groups of students performed free improvisations together. We held the the sessions in the students' regular rehearsal rooms, which aided in creating a relaxed and informal atmosphere at both performance-workshops.These sessions were also scheduled during regular rehearsal times, so many students had their instruments and were ready to play.

Four CCC students (two tenors, drums, and trumpet) performed three different improvisations.The first one, which I sat in on, featured a recurring pitch center that everyone orbited around, each musician occasionally touching the pitch, but never settling completely on it. This approach created a cyclical sense of phrasing was neither static nor too predictable. The second improvisation was longer with clearly delineated sections. Some of these sections were arguably too long, which was a good talking point. Knowing when to stop playing is one of the hardest things to do in free improvisation! This particular improvisation led the students to discover the possibilities of impromptu duos, trios, and soloists. Ken and I both suggested that this improvisation had many good ideas and that an improvisation like this one, if recorded or notated in some way, could be used to construct a more “formal” composition. In the last improvisation, I suggested that the students play for no more than 10-30 seconds, and to play loud! In relating to this, Ken commented that not every improvisation needs to start softly or sparsely, but that a variety of basic initial concepts (loud, soft, fast, slow) can be used to begin an improvisation.

PSU’s students performed two separate improvisations with tenor sax, drums, flute, electric guitar and piano. Afterward, we suggested that each individual performer can initiate more dramatic musical textures and gestures if the music becomes “stale” or gets in a rut. In other words, not everything needs to change amorphously. Clearly articulated changes in musical texture can make an improvisation exciting. Jazz pianist and PSU professor George Colligan helped facilitate the workshop, and at one point he asked, “is this jazz?” A valid question, and our answer went something like this: we have jazz backgrounds, therefore there is often something in the way we play the rhythm in our improvisations that comes from a jazz place. Other people also come to free improvisation from rock (Ken mentioned Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame), various classical music backgrounds or other musics, and those players bring sounds and ways of playing music to free improvisation that somehow relate to their “home” musical languages. In this way, everyone can come to the table of free improvisation, bring their respective sounds, and the music remains vital as players of different backgrounds feed off of each other. For me and Ken, our free improvisations may rely heavily on the syncopated and propulsive aspects of jazz, but there are also influences from other sources such as Webern, Cage, minimalism, modern chamber music,  and electronic music. For example, Ken's A Swarm of Yellow demonstrates various rhythmic influences from jazz, but its pitch arrangements are heavily influenced by the compositional aesthetics of Webern or Messiaen.

It has been my experience that people who identify themselves as free improvisers don’t necessarily feel the need to identify and categorize the music specifically as jazz. In fact, many distance themselves from the label entirely. My question is, what does it do to categorize this music as jazz? Perhaps it changes people’s opinions about it (positively and negatively), or maybe to label it “not jazz” serves to shore up the boundaries of what jazz is by some people’s measures. I think both are true, but believe that by categorizing free improvisation as jazz it runs the risk of being misunderstood. For example, free improvisation cannot necessarily be evaluated by many of the same criteria that might be appropriate  for bebop or swing styles, e.g., swing feel, playing the changes, and motivic development to name a few. Instead, assessment for free improvisation may rely more on factors such as how well performers inter-relate, how do performers move from section to section, and how effectively do performers of free improvisation create textures. Development of a player’s technical language, that is, his or her personal vocabulary of contemporary sounds, is also a possible area for evaluation. Also, if free improvisation is labeled as jazz the label itself may become a subtle barrier for musicians who might improvise but who do not play jazz or have jazz backgrounds. Why should free improvisation be so exclusive? This, I feel,  is one of the basic problems of teaching improvised music  in most colleges and universities (and certainly in students in high school  and even younger): the tacet assumption that improvisation equals jazz, and if you don’t play a “jazz” instrument, i.e., a standard big band instrument, you are excluded from participating not only in jazz traditions, but improvisation entirely! I've seen this happen with many of my high school aged flute students. 

In light of all of these things, I think it would be helpful for all of us, performers, educators, and listeners alike, to broaden our listening and involvement in improvised music. To help in this, there are organizations that promote improvised music such as ISIM and the Creative Music Guild. I am most familiar with them, but I'm certain there are many others across the globe. It's important to remember that there exists a vast network of performers from all backgrounds who participate in improvised music making. These artists may not be well-known celebrities, but many of them have been slogging it out for years, perfecting their craft, and bringing amazing sounds to the world. Seek them out, they are well worth listening to!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Risk, Courage, Trust, and Forgiveness in Improvised Music

April was a busy month (including a CD release on Teal Creek Music !), so I'm now just getting to posting for Demolition Duo's April 5th performance-workshop at Lewis and Clark College. There was a lot to digest from our visit at LC, but here are a few highlights.

We presented two different sessions at LC, one for Professor Jeff Leonard’s jazz appreciation students, and another for Beth ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Szczepanski’s jazz theory class. We opened up each session with a
long free improvisation. You can check out one of the improvisations on my SavageFlute youtube channel (in parts 1 and 2). The students at Lewis and Clark were interested in our decision-making processes. Some questions included, how do you decide what instrument to play (including individual parts of the drum kit?) How do you know when to begin (or when not to begin) a new musical idea? How do you decide when to use different instrumental techniques? And what are those techniques?

There was also a recurring theme of how to bridge free improvisation concepts and styles into more traditional styles. Ken and I feel that we presented this well, making it clear that many of the musical considerations required an effective free improvisation are part of effective playing in straight-ahead jazz, classical styles, and other musical genres.

One student (who played bass) asked, “are there ways to practice this type of improvisation?” Ken answered with some specific practice techniques, such as taking the first ten minutes to play an improvised solo with or without restrictions (e.g. play just with the  bow, or just with your pinky), or try improvising using “centricity,” where everything one plays leads back or relates in some way to one specific pitch, but not necessarily in a ii, V, I sort of relationship (traditional, functional harmonic relationships).

Another student asked, “What are you thinking about through the  course of any song?” I replied, "I listen to what my duet partner or the rest of the group doing, and then I may make the decision to play in a supportive roll or a contrary roll. I 'get out on a limb,' play something that I'm not sure if I can execute technically as a performer--there's an audience component in this as I want to do it well for the audience." Ken responded to this thread by saying that, “the music will take you to someplace technically where you’ve never been before."

In summing up many of the ideas presented in the workshop, Ken and I both discussed the need  for courage, trust, and forgiveness, both for yourself and for the others with whom you are playing.  We also stressed the need for taking musical risks, and that any free improvisation is full of risk taking from the very beginning.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Free Improvisation in the Chapel

The Demolition Duo gave a performance-lecture at Reed College last Friday, March 29th. Special thanks goes to Professor David Schiff for for making it possible. Ken and I not only enjoyed the musical discussions, but performing in the Reed chapel was an acoustic treat! The sound on the stage was crisp despite a two second or more delay in the hall. It was an inspiring space to perform in. 

The students, largely Professor Schiff’s composition students, asked some really great questions about form, structure, interactivity, and instrumental techniques in improvised music. Their compositional interests ran the spectrum from Stravinsky to Zappa. Ken and I decided to open up with one free improvisation, and then play a written piece of each of hours to illustrate different concepts of pulse. Ken's work, "A Swarm of Yellow," which features a melody derived from set theory, is written in 4/4 and propels the soloist into an intervallic, propulsive, solo where the beat may be divided in any number of divisions. My piece, " Marty Says..." (dedicated to Marty Ehrlich), is more rubato and a pulse may be implied relative to how the melody is performed. One memorable discussion  involved how the music a group is improvising actually guides each individual musician (and in turn the group) deeper into the improvisatory "cave." Ken and I also supplied an outline of free improvisation concepts, plus a reference list of some of our favorite writings on improvisation. Here's our handout:

                       RACC Demolition Duo Project, 2013

Demolition Duo: John C. Savage, Ph.D.—flutes, alto sax, Ken Ollis, M.M.—drum set

Let the Music Guide You: Thoughts on Playing Improvised Music
Let the music guide you. It will tell you what to play.  Follow its instructions decisively and confidently. Indecision and lack of confidence will destroy the music.  Each time you sit down to play, forget everything that you think should be, or will be, because if you are truly inside the music, none of those things will likely happen. Surprise, for the audience and the performer, is a crucial ingredient to the best free improvisation.

Technique is the means to an end: it is information. Information is a tool. Technique is not art: it is at the service of art. Many times the music will guide you to new techniques you have never used before.

Develop your instrumental technique vocabulary:

Listen to everything!

Possess a broad knowledge of musical idioms including jazz styles, non-Western Music styles, “extended” instrumental techniques, pop music, avant-garde composers, electronic music, country, blues, etc.

Perform in groups that challenge your assumptions of how your instrument “fits” in. For example, play flute in a country-blues act, baritone saxophone in a punk band, perform lute pieces on electric guitar.

Practice and perform (and compose) with what are commonly referred to as “extended techniques.”

Think of orchestration:

You are the Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov of improvised orchestration.

            What are the traditional roles of your instrument?

In what ways can you work in opposition to those roles, including the use of “extended” techniques? How is this influenced by the instrument(s) you are playing with?

Think about and explore the following postures of interaction (from Joe Morris, “Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music,” 2012) while practicing, listening to free music, or when you are otherwise away from your instrument.  When you are playing a gig or a serious rehearsal, only use these as tools when you are stuck and don’t know what to play.

 Postures of Interaction:
            Solo- One playing by oneself, with accompaniment, or in parallel solo with another soloist.

Unison- Players playing the same notes, same density, same rhythm, or somehow conceptually similar.

Compliment- Playing in support of a soloist, or soloists, using appropriate dynamics, texture, etc.

Juxtaposition- Playing something entirely different than the ensemble: playing in opposition.

            Silence- Not playing with intent.

There are many ways to conceive of time, or pulse, in improvised music, the following are are some examples (Morris, 2012):


            Stating pulse in metric time (4/4, 3/4, etc.)

            Unaccented non-metric pulse (e.g. 1/4 note based pulse with no time signature)

            Rubato over a pulse in the rhythm section

            Collective rubato over an implied pulse

            No pulse

            Generalized concepts of speed (e.g. “fast”, “slow”)

            “Energy” playing:  fermata of indefinite duration.

Time/space/silence:  silence between notes or phrases as propulsion. (e.g. lowercase music) 

Perhaps free improvisation (or music overall) is analogous to writing in this quote by Geof Huth:

“Writing is a writhing of the spirit, a need to make rather than a need to make sense. Production over argument, heart over lung, a means of breathing forth so that a breath inward may at some point be possible. It allows for life.”

                                                                                                            --Geof Huth


Benson, B. E. (2003). The improvisation of musical dialogue: A phenomenology of music. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Bailey, D. (1992). Improvisation: Its nature and practice in music. New York: Da Capo Press. 

Butcher, J. (2008, March). Between thought and expression. Wire, 289, 28-33.

Cage, J. Silence (1961). Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Lewis, G. (2000). Teaching Improvised Music: An Ethnographic Memoir.  In J. Zorn (Ed.) Arcana: Musicians on Music.  (pp. 78-109) New York: Granary Books Inc.

Morris, J. (2012). Perpetual frontier: The Properties of Free Music. Stony Creek, CT: Riti Publishing.

Nachmanovitch, S. (1990) Free play: Improvisation in life and art. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher. 

Pressing, J. (2000). Improvisation: methods and models. In John A. Sloboda (Ed.) Generative processes in music (pp. 129-178). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Savage, J. (2010) A phenomenology of contemporary flute improvisation: Contextual explications of techniques, aesthetics, and performance practices. (Doctoral Dissertation, New York University).

Werner, K (1996). Effortless mastery: Liberating the master musician within. New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold Jazz Inc.

                This workshop was funded in part by the Regional Arts and Culture Council



Thursday, February 28, 2013

Demolition Duo "Academic" Tour Begins

Demolition Duo Rehearsal
Administering my RACC project grant for the Demolition Duo is a lot like booking a tour: there's a lot of coordinating times and dates with multiple professors at the various schools. What I've generally found is that it is often difficult to fit us into a school’s regular curriculum, especially as we try to combine different classes together in one place and time! However, since this undertaking is funded by a RACC project grant, there’s no need to negotiate fees or wait for the cover-charge tally at the end of the night!  Actually, this arrangement works well for everyone, the schools, their faculty and students, and we creative-class-types. Without some of the monetary struggles often associated with playing free improvised music, Ken and I can focus more on the artistic aspects of our duo. Here are two audio clips of our last rehearsal on February 23rd (demo duo reh 2-23a and demo duo reh 2-23b): 

Though not included in the grant (RACC only funds for Portland's tri-county area) Ken and I are starting our 2013 college tour with a performance at Western Oregon University on Thursday, February 28th, at 7:30pm. Our future engagements include Reed College on March 29th, Lewis and Clark College on April 5th, Clackamas Community College sometime in May, and our final workshop-performance will be at Portland State University's summer jazz clinic in July.

I look forward to seeing how each visit develops through the collaboration of  jazz, ethnomusicology, composition, and classical performance programs. Improvisation is an element of all of these disciplines in one way or another, so it makes sense that the Demolition Duo’s visit could break down artificial barriers between academic studies (jazz students here, classical performers here, musicologists over here). So in some sense, I feel that my main objective in this project is to get students and faculty from these different areas together in one room to experience how improvisation can enrich their musicianship and scholarship. I hope our visit inspires a classically trained pianist to jam with a straight ahead jazz trombonist, new musical ground is discovered between a virtuosic bebop saxophonist and a “noise” guitarist, or that a musicologist may consider the potential role of improvisation in composition in his or her next paper. 

As March begins tomorrow, it seems timely to mention that Ken and I will be performing for Portland's March Music Moderne festival
We'll actually be performing separately on a concert of solos also including Danielle Ross (dance) and Madelyn Villano (violin). Here's the info:

The Creative Music Guild presents: A Series of Solos (March Music Moderne)
March 12th
The Gallery at Port City
2156 N Williams, Portland, Oregon 97227
8pm, $7-$20, sliding scale

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Demolition Duo 2013

Happy New Year to all! I received a holiday gift from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council (RACC) at the end of 2012 in the form of a grant award for the Demolition Duo. The "Demolition Duo is the improvised fire music of John Savage and Ken Ollis...the duo engages in an ecstatic dialogue...a mercurial, improvised conversation between the two musicians" [Creative Music Guild, Portland, OR]. The grant will fund four performance-workshops at Portland area colleges and universities between February and May of 2013. The lucky schools are: Portland State University, Reed College, Clackamas Community College, and Lewis and Clark College (specific dates to be announced). Though not directly under the auspices of the grant, we will also give a clinic and perform at Western Oregon University on February 28th. (the concert is at 7:30pm, free admission, in the Smith auditorium, room 121).

I’ve decided to use this blog to chronicle Demolition Duo activities, including links to audio and video from our engagements at the various schools. I might include a few rehearsals, too. The Demolition Duo was busy this year and had a number of performances including the Creative Music Guild’s Outset Series and the 32nd annual Cathedral Park Jazz Festival. We also recorded an album, and hope to have it released in the near future. Please allow me to (re)introduce ourselves:

photo by Sue Zalokar
Flutist, saxophonist, and composer John C. Savage has been compared to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Herbie Mann, Noah Howard, and Ian Anderson. Known equally as “a thoughtful and rigorous improviser,” and “a badass, knock-down-drag-out force to be reckoned with” (The Willamette Week), Savage lived in New York City for many years performing with, among others, The Savage 3, Billy Fox, (The Uncle Wiggly Suite) the electroacoustic duo Cartridge, The Brooklyn Qawwali Party (eponymous release), and the Andrew Hill Big Band (A Beautiful Day). Savage continues to be a sought-after soloist and collaborator on both coasts working with a wide variety of artists, including the NYC-based Kitsune Ensemble (The Kaidan Suite and Amanogawa) and Portland’s Demolition Duo. Savage holds a Ph.D. from New York University in music performance and teaches flute at Western Oregon University.

Ken Ollis is a drummer and composer from Portland, OR. He has performed extensively throughout the US, Canada, and Europe, and has played with a variety of musicians including: Kenny Werner, Ingrid Jensen, Julian Priester, The Drifters, Bud Shank, John Stowell, Darrell Grant, John Gross, Dan Balmer, Chata Addy, Rob Blakeslee, Rich Halley, Glen Moore, and many others.  Most recently, his projects have included work with Dominique Eade, Heather Masse (from The Wailin’ Jennys), Aoife O'Donovan (from Crooked Still), Pepe and The Bottle Blondes, Paxselin Quartet, Demolition Duo, and several other groups. Ken also regularly performs in collaboration with painters, poets, dancers, and cinematographers. His compositions are featured in the repertoire of the Paxselin Quartet, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, PDX Ensemble, The Chamber of Commerce, and in his own groups.  His debut CD, Confluence, features Ollis’s original compositions performed skillfully by a fantastic ensemble.  Ken currently teaches at Portland State University and George Fox University, and has taught a multitude of clinics throughout the country. He holds an M.M. in jazz performance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Musical Conservatism and Curriculum

Last week I dug out an old box of cassettes and found an early document of my flute playing. What caught my eye was a tape with James Newton’s “Axum” on the B side, and an A side labeled as “Impressions of Europe.” No, it wasn’t a Brubeck album, but rather a live recording from the Ockenburgh campground in the Netherlands from July of 1992. It featured two Dutch guitarists and me and my girlfriend playing flutes. We were on a Eurail tour of Northern Europe for two months, culminating with a week-long flute course in Belgium with Wil Offermans. I distinctly remember one of the Dutch campers calling out to me, “Deutsch?” I said, “no, American,” to which he replied, “you’re a long way from home.” Soon after, the four of us found ourselves jamming on the campsite’s sands (you can occasionally hear the wind blow over the tape recorder from the North Sea.) The set started with a jam on what sounds like Ravel’s “Pavane,” followed by an extended blues jam (with me on blues harp), continued on a progression reminiscent of “Dust in the Wind,” and reached a fever pitch with Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground.”

Reliving this experience, twenty years later, made me think about how important it is to encourage students to experiment with and pursue music in ways that they feel closest to. For me jazz and rock vernaculars (especially blues-rock and free jazz styles) were what inspired me to keep making music as a young flutist. Unfortunately, many music students are not encouraged to follow paths outside of defined curriculum. This is especially the case for flute students. Traditional classical repertoire is stressed to the exclusion of jazz, folk styles, or many other forms of music. In light of this, I feel lucky that my teacher at Portland State was accepting of my non-classical flute adventures. On the other hand, I view much of my undergraduate education (as well as some of my graduate work) as having been overburdened with musical conservatism, with most of my credits for graduation falling under a strict, classical cannon paradigm.

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about how the job description for classical musicians in the twentieth century became synonymous with being an orchestral player and classical chamber musician. Whenever I say I am a musician that plays the flute, most people ask me, “are you in an orchestra?” My friend is a fine classical oboist and, like me, holds a doctorate in music (this means we talk about this kind of stuff way too much). We both agreed that in the distant past classical musicians were much more of the multitasking sort than the austere specialist. Sure, rendering of composers’ works was important for the 18th and 19th century musician, but so was composing, arranging, improvising, teaching, finding financial assistance, and booking one’s own concerts. That sounds strangely similar to how a lot of the modern-day working musicians I know actually make their livings, and it has have very little to do with playing orchestral excerpts perfectly, or analyzing thousands of measures of Mozart’s chord progressions.

On the days that I occasionally view job postings on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, I see this institutional musical conservatism well at work. The majority of postings for flute positions require that applicants have several years of orchestral work under their belts, a documented recital history (of classical music), and recordings of classical music performances. What seems to matter in most job descriptions is that candidates have played repertoire that is largely known and therefore easily judged. Original compositions, improvising, chamber groups that perform original compositions (including jazz), working with artists in other disciplines (dance, technology, etc.), and experience with electronic music, are rarely part of the equation.

I understand that my viewpoint overall in the arts is influenced by my ultra-liberal, New York University education, and those many years I spent riding subways to see or participate in performances that ranged from the daring (my work with Andrew Hill and my musical relationship with Will Redmond), to the ridiculous (dancers, naked with hamsters, or guys with amplified hoses wearing haz-mat suits), but I really imagined in 2012 that academic job descriptions and departmental duties for flutists might be different than they were in 1992.  If the flute is to continue to be an active participant in 21st century music (with musicians able to make a living and find joy in their profession), it needs to be taught from an expanded consciousness of what it means to be a contemporary musician, both in the private lesson studio, and in our educational institutions. The flute (and other traditionally orchestral musical instruments) must not be boxed in by twentieth century musical conservatism. If this trend continues, the flute will continue on its course as an elite hobby, only furthering the glut of classical technicians who graduate from universities and conservatories only to compete for chairs in fewer and fewer financially solvent, well-paying orchestras.