In the mid 1970s, my father began taking me on hikes through the Totts Gap on the North Bangor mountain of Pennsylvania. Just near the passing Appalachian Trail, a cave hides in the side of the rock mountain. Over the years he told me how his father brought him to this cave when he was young, telling him that is was created by the Ingersoll-Rand Company, to test drill bits in the 1930s. The cave still has metal drill bits broken-off in the walls. My father remains amazed that he would go-on to spend his adult working life employed by Ingersoll-Rand, eventually retiring in 2000.
I became nostalgic for the annual trips to the cave with my father. Upon a visit to the cave in 2017, I thought it would be interesting to improvise trombone inside the cave. I planned and imagined the improvisation session for nearly two years. On April 15, 2019, my friend Christopher Minnich and I went into the cave with digital recording equipment, a camera, and my Conn 88H, orchestral trombone. The session is documented here with a video, audio recording, and photographs. Christopher Minnich was the videographer, and photographer.
I gave careful consideration to how I was going to approach the improvisation. After two years of thinking, I decided to allow nostalgia, curiosity, and the sensory environment to inform my playing. Spontaneously reacting to smells, sounds, textures, visions, and memories, the trombone slide moved in a free-association with the rational & the empirical. Drops of water can be heard and were felt on my body. Deep holes where men once drilled percussively into the hard rock walls. A spider’s web weighed down by water that drained into the cave from above. Memories of my father taking me to the cave as a boy, and the stories he told me visiting the cave with his father. Environmental factors, such as the water draining from the rock ceiling and “popping” on the sound recorder, create further interactions between our equipment and the wild environment. All of these experiences converged into a spontaneous reaction from the instrument.
This was an experiment in spontaneous creation. There was no intention or goal other than doing what had to be done out of my sense of interest in having the experience. Hopefully the resulting sounds and images will be as interesting to others as it was for me to create and Christopher to document.
April 15, 2019
Trombone: Matthew Giobbi
Video & Photography: Christopher Minnich
I began exploring free-improvisation in 2015. It was in that year that I decided to dedicate the four-year period between May, 2015 through May 2019 to the study of music. I had studied classical music at conservatory from the age of fifteen to twenty-two, and then undertook studies in psychology and philosophy. The period of time that I stopped daily practice of music was about fifteen years. During this time I continued to teach privately, but did not actively pursue music in any way.
In 2015 I felt the call to revisit music in a devoted way. I am cautious to call it “serious,” but most people would consider my daily dedication to study, play, and practice “serious”. In the past four years, a typical day would consist of five hours of time on the piano and or trombone. I also read on classical and jazz theory, history, and practice. Having spent five years in conservatories, I can say that my daily efforts over the past four years have been on-par with a typical day in conservatory.
I was initially worried that I had “wasted” the past fifteen years, as far as music was concerned. However, I soon realized that the study of psychology and philosophy enhanced my experience with music as well as my ability to approach and process music and music practice. My studies outside of music have informed and enhanced my experience with music.
One of the effects of studying outside of music was my willingness to read and learn about music from non-traditional sources. Not only have I explored the psychology and philosophy of music and performance, but also areas in non-Western, jazz, and avant-garde music. One area in particular has been free-improvisation.
I first encountered a meaningful understanding of free-improvisation through Kenny Werner’s text, Effortless Mastery. This book is an elegant approach to music through Eastern thought. I quickly moved-on to the texts by Stephen Nachmanovitch, Mildred Portney Chase, William Westney, and Victor Wooten. Spontaneous music-making from a place other than the written manuscript was something I had never done, and I found it exhilarating and freeing. I had studied and composed for many years, but never improvised. Free-improvisation challenged many of my attitudes about what music is, why we make it, and what “counts” as legitimate in music and art. I have found that the more time I spend thinking and challenging my assumptions and attitudes about music, the broader my understanding becomes of it, and the more pleasure I have in participating in it.
Free-improvisation is not about technique, or virtuosity, although one’s technical abilities will come through in the improvisation. It is not about falling into socially determined rules of music-making, but rather of making or unmaking those rules that we are familiar with. One can choose if and when rules or limitations are applied to the music-making process. For me, improvisation has been an exercise in meditation, of remaining present in moment, freeing myself from self-judgment and the judgment of others, as well as of expressive exchange with others and my environment. In its most simple way, free-improvisation gives me something to do without needing a reason to be doing it.
Musicians and listeners are often baffled by free-improvisation. Why would one do it? and what is the point? are two common impressions one might have. Listening to a free-improvisational work takes different ears than listening to a composed work. Performing improvisational music takes a different set of skills than performing a composed piece. If I could answer these two common questions simply, I would way I play free-improvise for no reason at all, and there is no point to it. If there is a point to it, it is that there needn’t be a point to it. If there is a reason that I do it, it would be that I don’t need a reason to do it. That is the point of freedom.
Like most free-improvisers, it is not the only thing I do. I compose and play music from the classical, jazz, and pop genres. I enjoy listening to or performing a Brahm’s symphony or a tune by Thelonious Monk. I also enjoy making music spontaneously without any reason why. That is freedom.
I often think of Abraham Maslow, who wrote so considerately on peak performance and self-actualization. Maslow’s description of the self-actualized attitude is very similar to the description of enlightenment in Buddhism and other Eastern thinking. To me, free-improvisation is what one does in a state of self-actualization. It is not done on needs of survival, esteem, or acceptance, only for the sake of the experience of doing it.
Since the first notes I produced on the trombone (I remember them clearly), I have preferred practice or playing alone, over performing -playing for others. Over the years I have also enjoyed playing with others. I do not particularly enjoy playing for others. Performance had little to no appeal to me and I reacted emotionally and physically against doing it. This was not fear, but rather a distaste for putting on a show. Today, I can enjoy sharing my music with others, but I prefer to make music with myself or with my friends. It took many years for me to realize that I did not have to “perform” to be a musician. The act of playing in itself is an pleasurable physical and emotional experience to me.
It has not been uncommon for me to spend four hours playing alone and three hours in an ensemble rehearsal on a given day in conservatory. This is not unusual, any musician will know this routine. The time spent alone in a practice room becomes sacred. In a Jungian analysis I came to understand that I am an introverted-intuitive type. The practice room lends itself to introspection and intuition. I do not know how extrovert type people experience the practice room. For me, the appeal of being a musician was in being alone or with others making music.
Playing trombone is a physical experience. The whole body engages with the instrument. Breath, skeleton, muscles, nervous system are all engaged in the activity. When the breath is sent into vibration by the lips, the entire cranium pleasantly vibrates. I have read that these vibrations stimulate the pituitary gland and promote the production of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. The biological experience, the bodily of experience of playing the instrument can cause feeling of bliss. This is also the case when tones we produce meld and blend with the sonorities of other instruments. There is something satisfying about making consonant and dissonant tensions and releases with another musician. This all happens playing alone or playing with others. In this way, performing for others has typically felt like an interference of the experience for me.
The point, in answer to the question, “what is the point?” is to do something without a point. Free from intention; the just doing. The intention is to have the experience and experience it. Too often we find ourselves needing to justify our undertakings. Trying to become “good” at something. Will writing this song or book make me famous? Will I get rich, or make money? How will this enhance my CV? So many times we dismiss doing something because we cannot justify it in a utilitarian way. Free-improvisation takes-on this problem by removing any ego in the sense of gaining anything other than the experience of doing something for its own sake. This is one of the characteristics that attracts artists to free-improvisation.
There is something magical about the physical experience of making sounds on the brass instrument. This is true for all instruments, string, wind, percussion, and voice. However, there is something peculiar to wind and vocal sound production; it involves the breath and the mouth. Because the sounds are directly on the mouth, the resulting vibrations resonate through the cranium. When playing a wind instrument or singing, one can feel the vibrations. The pituitary and thalamus, and hypothalamus are all glands that are part of the Central Nervous System. The pituitary and thalamus are known as master glands that can control the other glands secretion of specific hormones & neurotransmitters. The hypothalamus is active as a bridge between the endocrine and nervous systems, as well as the basic drive functions of survival; fighting flighting, feeding, and sex. When these glands are stimulated through vibration or electric current, the result is increased activity and production of neurotransmitter and hormones. Incidentally neurotransmitters and hormones are the same chemicals with are called by different names when referring to their function in either the nervous or endocrine system. All of this leads me to believe that playing an instrument that resonates the cranium, and stimulating these glands, could promote a blissful experience. That experience is all part of just making tones for the sake of making tones, and feeling good!