Maggie Nicols is a revolutionary. She is unafraid to declare her passionate commitment to vocal improvisation as an anarchist practice and I’d venture to say she’s made a career of it.
My friend and mentor, Sophia Grigoriadis has a name for women like Nicols: Hag. This is a term of respect and endearment for women whose knowledge and mastery are an integral part of their presence in the world. Nichols brings a wealth of experience to vocal improvisation, having lived a life of adventure and activism. She makes no bones about vocal improvisation being a radical act where upon participants are required to expose themselves, be vulnerable and account for the vulnerability of others.
Her workshop focused on a few key concepts:
1. If you allow people freedom they will self regulate.
This fundamental principal of anarchy that essentially is a practice of trust within a group is particularly relevant in the era of the Occupy movement and all the hierarchy-free collaborations that have resulted. I also found myself reflecting on this theme of trust for the individual to take responsibility for themselves as it exists in the Montessori classroom.
2. Only make a noise you honestly feel like making.
Maggie related a story from one of her “gatherings” where the group was creating a quiet improvisation and suddenly one individual started contributing loud aggressive sounds. Suddenly the group felt the need to match this dynamic and then all contrast was lost. After that experience Maggie asks workshop participants to listen to one another, respond, but only in a completely honest way. Holding this principle in mind guards the group against conformity or mob mentality. It also expands our understanding of response or support. Being responsive is not the same thing as being reactive. Support is not always mirroring.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked several of her pearls of wisdom, but with just these two ideas in mind the group created works that were expansive in their nature. One exercise was for participants to rest in silence and when an individual felt compelled they could make a short brief sound. (Nichols called them “little gems”) The group at large was asked to respond with an equally brief and immediate sound. Nichols said she composed this as a response to her fear and resentment for silence. This work allowed her to explore a new relationship with silence. Here it becomes a generous invitation rather than the punishing imposition it was in her childhood schooling.
What occurred in practice was that the sounds become gradually longer as do the responses. Dialogue emerged and the piece was an unending work spanning over 20 minutes of real listening and interactions. Themes were explored (both sonically and lyrically) and the spaces of silence between contributions had the individuals placing extra effort towards our sense of completion. Truth be told we were having too much fun in this open invitation towards honest self expression. When the piece did wrap up everyone had a satisfied smile, not unlike the kind worn at the end of a great feast. Certainly the experience had a way of creating a family vibe, if only momentarily, amongst participants.
Viva la revolucion!