The foremothers of improv, Les Diaboliques (Scottish vocalist Maggie Nicols, French bassist Joëlle Léandre and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer), will perform here at Arnolfini this month as part of an exclusive four date UK tour. D-M Withers spoke with Maggie Nicols about her thoughts and impressions before she embarks on this landmark tour.
How did you meet Irène Schweizer?
I first met Irène when she was doing a solo gig at a festival in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. She was planning to join Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) and we went to hear her play. I remember us just literally mobbing her after she played. It was so exciting because she was going to be playing with us! and I fell totally in love with her. There was just this fierce pride that this incredible musician would be joining FIG. I couldn’t believe that anyone could play the piano like she did, so dynamic, so flowing and fluid and powerful. I loved FIG from the start but Irène joining really took it in a whole other direction.
Why do you think you and Irène have maintained such a strong musical connection?
Irène had also done stuff with John Stevens [Spontaneous Music Ensemble] , . John was the person who introduced me to free improvisation, and had a massive influence on how I developed as a musician and teacher. So she was a real kindred spirit in terms of the language of improvisation she used, that was amazing, I felt really connected, we had a similar approach to rhythm, free form rhythm.
Can you explain what you mean by the ‘language of improvisation’?
A lot of it comes from John Stevens and people who’ve worked with John. John was a drummer, and a lot of jazz drummers are brilliant time keepers, can throw the time all over the place – really advanced – but when you took the metre away they would sound sometimes like floundering beached whales because they were out of their element. What John did with pieces like ‘Click,’ [documented in Search and Reflect, a book of music workshop exercises that facilitate mixed-ability music making], you know, ‘bup,’ he found a way of still keeping the dance in it, the energy, without it necessarily having to nest within conventional time. Trevor Watts was very important too, and Trevor and John did a lot of experimenting with how to play without an actual metre, where everything is going down, and the ‘Click’ piece is very much about that because it's not the downward beat, it's the bounce, and it's the bouncing that creates a real interesting rhythm even if there’s no groove. And that’s what John did, he transferred a groove to music with no recognisable metre, and Irène certainly has that and she was a drummer, and that what's very interesting too.
So immediately the first time I sang with Irène we just clicked and we’ve clicked ever since. It’s just so easy singing with Irène, it’s easy but at the same time it kicks me up the arse because she's such a powerful musician, she brings the best out of me.
Did Joëlle move in similar musical circles?
Joëlle’s musical background is slightly different. She came from new music, more conceptual [Joëlle describes John Cage as ‘her spiritual father’ and he composed music specifically for her], but now she’s the most incredible improviser.
How do these different elements combine in Les Diaboliques?
What I love about Les Diaboliques is that each one of us is very powerful in our own right, so we don’t have to dilute ourselves, we don’t have to worry that we are too much for each other. It’s three very powerful women, and it’s impossible to overshadow each other.
Joëlle is incredibly theatrical. It’s great to have someone else who is such a diva, which means that sometimes I might want to be a bit understated because Joëlle can take that role. Within the trio Irène often plays the ‘straight woman’ with her deadpan humour. So while Joëlle and I do the over the top theatrical crazy stuff she will play a little, witty motif in response. With the performance it’s almost inevitable that something comedic will emerge because it’s part of us three relating, we just let it unfold. Yet we can go from crazy humour to very deep, intense music. The music is never secondary. The music is primary and all that other stuff comes out of the music.
What prepares you for the improvised performance?
Your life experience, what happened in the day… it isn’t just about playing 8 hours a day and practicing, and well done to those that do it, but I don't have 8 hours a day to practice. My life is my practice and I practice when I can and I love it, I get a real buzz. Sometimes I think, I'd love to be one of those musicians who spend the whole day practicing, how must that be, it must be amazing, but then I have the experience I have and I use it.
If somebody has never heard free improvised music, or don’t know what it ‘is’, could you give an impression of what audiences might expect when they watch Les Diaboliques.
It’s almost like reading a thriller and not knowing what’s going to happen next. It's not like, 'here's one I made earlier.' You'll hear both the familiar and the strange. Although the general setting is plucking from almost universal sources very specifics can come out too. So in a sense expect the unexpected but also expect that our own musical histories will come out. We're not afraid to go into a little waltz, a bit of blues, Irène might play some township music because of her history of working with the first exiled South African musicians during apartheid. Joëlle might sing a bit of opera, do some theatre. We go through lots of different moods and the music carries all these different possibilities.
None of us know what we’re going to do and the audience effect what we do. It’s ok to laugh if you feel something is funny, even if we don't intend it, we won't be offended. Free improvisation is not a music that you have to ‘understand.’ A lot of people think, oh my god, I have to understand what’s going on. It’s more of a sensuous experience, feel the music through the body and emotions. Les Diaboliques is not an intellectual exercise. It's about energy. We are using a vocabulary, a universal vocabulary - the language of music, life and our own feelings.
You, Irène and Joëlle were some of the first women to break into a male-dominated free improvisation ‘scene.’ How was your approach, as women, different to men’s?
At the beginning of free improvisation there would be these ideological schools, and they’d all be competing, these different concepts – it was very conceptual. When women came in we upset the apple cart because we integrated so many different approaches, and I wonder if that's something that came out of feminism, a more anarchist, non-hierarchical, less ideologically attached approach, more irreverent.
Challenging the dominance of the virtuoso was also important with FIG because we were a mixed ability group. Some of the men who were also challenging virtuosity loved FIG, but others complained because they said these women can't play their instruments. This was a group with Irène and Lindsay Cooper! Then there were also women who didn't play at the same level. This is why I coined the term social virtuosity. There was virtuosity in terms of relationship.
The Women’s Liberation Movement enabled me and other women to realise that we had our own perspective and we had just as much right to approach the music in the way we want, we didn't always have to defer to male approval. I think it was that deferring to men that I was liberated from, and FIG was part of that because we were saying: we're defiant, we're exploring. It was incredibly liberating and revolutionary.
Do you see Les Diaboliques as the continuation of what you were doing in FIG?
In some ways. Irène, Joëlle and I have been round long enough now that we are valued as incredible improvisers, however on an emotional level I don't think the fact that we are women is irrelevant. How do I dance that contradiction? That we are three musicians but we are women. I find it so hard.
What are you most looking forward to about this opportunity to perform with Les Diaboliques this November?
I think it’s an opportunity to showcase three strong women who are steeped in the music, women who really know how to communicate through and within improvisation. It's also just great hanging out with them and I love them both very much.
Bristol audiences have a unique opportunity to attend at a panel discussion where Nicols, Léandre and Schweizer will reflect on their 50 years of pioneering contributions to free improvisation, jazz and avant-garde music.
Les Diaboliques will be supported by Halftone, the Bristol-based quartet featuring Hannah Marshall, Yvonna Magda, Tina Hitchens and Caitlin Alais Callahan.
The concert is part of a four-date UK tour, funded by Arts Council England and Pro Helvetia.