Five Minute Interview With Maggie Nicols
Got a chance to chat with Maggie Nicols very briefly after her Roundhouse performance tonight. She's the discovery of the festival, for me; a Scottish vocal artist living in Wales, I feel lucky to have managed to see her perform thrice -- once with Phil Minton, Torsten Muller, and Peggy Lee, the second time last night with the Dedication Orchestra, and the third time earlier this afternoon. Each time what she was doing grew on me more and more; she's not quite in the far-out-there range that Paul Dutton, Koichi Makigami, Maja Ratkje, or Phil Minton inhabit, but nor is she a "singer" in the proper sense -- she sings, and sometimes even sings songs, but more often she's concerned with sound, doing nasally overtone stuff alongside drifting layers of colour and sound which have, at times, an almost operatic quality (tho' not exactly). Meredith Monk comes to mind as a possibly similar artist, but that doesn't work so well, either, since Monk is more of a composer, while Maggie more of an improviser (she also tap dances when it fits, being the only percussion instrument in two of the three performances I saw her in). The only recording that reminds me, for sound quality, of what Maggie was doing today was Stockhausen's Singcircle recording, but again, the differences are as strong as the similarities. I asked her what she called herself -- we were sitting on the floor backstage by the ladies' room at the Roundhouse, so as not to be in anyone's way: a sound poet, a vocal improviser, a singer? She made a puzzled sound, and said "Hmmm... good question... I don't know, really! Musician. Just put 'musician.'"
Maggie seemed to win several fans during her Roundhouse concert with Dedication Orchestra cohorts John Edwards, on bass, Paul Rutherford on trombone, and Steve Beresford on piano (he also had an effects box of some sort and some little instruments to play, and at one point, to accompany something delicate that Maggie was doing, took to rubbing the finish on his piano to make a small squeaky sound); he and Maggie seemed to be the mischief-makers of the bunch. At one point, as she was singing what sounded like a traditional jazz ballad with a chorus of "beware my foolish heart," she began to repeat "surely this time it's love" in a way that evoked desperation, weariness, and an awareness of the absurdity of hope which, alas, all of us could identify with; it got the audience laughing, which got me thinking of something I'd read about the role of the audience in Derek Bailey's book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music:
Improvisation's responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in
aposition to be completely influenced by the audience. Invoking
professionalism-- the ability to provide at least a standard performance
whatever thecircumstances -- usually has a deleterious effect on improvisation,
causing itto be confised to the more predictable aspects of the idiom or the
vocabulary.Therefore, the effect of the audience's approval or disapproval is
imeediate,and, because its effect is on the creator at the crucial time in the
process ofhis making the music, its influence is not only on the performance but
on theforming and choice of the stuff used (p. 60, Moorland edition).
Bailey goes on to interview several improvisers in different traditions, and notes a surprising disparity of reactions: some improvisers feel that the influence of the audience draws out the best in them and makes their performances significant, unlike what they might do in the privacy of their own home -- which, however interesting, doesn't seem to matter much; others feel that they'd rather not have the distraction of audience responses and expectations, taking them away from entering a space where they can perform their best. This relates quite a bit to how the band's performance was shaped this afternoon, because once people began laughing -- out of delight and identification with Maggie, mind you; an entirely appropriate laughter -- it immediately affected what the other band members did. Beresford, for example, trying to find a unique way to accompany her, having given up rubbing the piano, decided to try dragging his piano stool around on the floor, pushing down on it a little to produce a grinding drag-noise. It fit just perfectly, but it got more laughter, which led to Maggie moving into making a series of squawks and "ohhs" that also had a comic effect, and later going into a comical rant about her having to make "announcements," which she'd had to do all last night for the Dedication Orchestra and was being asked to do again ("just because I'm a bird I'm supposed to do the announcements!" -- as she pantomimed exasperation and indignation). This got yet more laughs and led Rutherford to comment something to the effect of "she's gone off her medication..." It was all delightful, but without the audience response to what she well may have not intended to be funny, initially, the performance might have gone in a different direction entirely.
Backstage, I asked Maggie how she felt about the role of the audience at such junctures. "It crucial, really important," she said. "I mean, there's a fine line. You don't want to play to the audience. If you're self-conscious about what you're doing you can stop trusting yourself and think 'you'd better make it funny.' Sometimes the audience laughs just because they've not heard the music before, as well -- like when Phil performs, they sometimes think he's making 'funny sounds.' It depends how deeply into it you are. Today I sensed there was a potential for humour that I could explore without destroying the song... but sometimes it doesn't happen the way you want."That was about all we had time for. John Edwards, who has also been a stellar performer throughout the festival, told Maggie that they had to catch a bus, and she thanked me for my enthusiasm (she used the adjective "lovely") and we parted, perhaps to chat later. She'll perform later tonight with the Dedication Orchestra yet again, opening for Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Centre. I suspect she's really enjoying her time here in Vancouver...
(Post-script: Ralph tells me that she had her audience doing random tones and bird cries at her workshop. Most folks find Ralph a bit eccentric, so I guess it's a form of high praise that he commented on Maggie, at last night's Roscoe Mitchell show, "that lady's on Venus." I've e-mailed Maggie the rest of my questions, so perhaps we'll follow this up at a later date).