IMPROV THEORY // BLOG

IMPROV THEORY is a collaborative improvisation practice that seeks to build bonds between artists from diverse geographical regions, with varying levels of access to production resources. Through a process of digital and in-person communication, artists enter a space of ritualised spontaneous expression, with a focus on instinct, trust, risk-taking, personal and collective storytelling, and using the body as the creative impetus across disciplines. This blog records my personal experience of the process.

NEW POST: GALINA, TEO & EZRA // SESSION NO. 4 // RITUALS

Dance: Galina Rodríguez Campaz // Image: Teo González // Music and Edit: Ezra Axelrod

This past Sunday, Galina, Teo and I headed into the mountains for several hours of dance and videography improvisation in a location that has been a sanctuary for me during these past two years of living in Cali, Colombia: an abandoned quarry that is slowly being reclaimed by forest. As we settled into the session in a spot that is usually solitary, a young man emerged from the woods. “I was looking for a place to sniff glue where nobody would bother me,” he said as he stumbled towards our group. His presence was certainly a curve-ball, but in the spirit of the improv ritual, I asked him if he’d like to join us. I would be playing the music from a speaker and why didn’t he sit next to me and inhale the fumes of his fluorescent yellow glue while Teo and Galina went into their improv trance? For an hour and a half, he sat by my side, sending himself into oblivion, and as he became familiar with the music, he started singing with me in a plaintive wail. Watching Galina’s “birth ritual” dance phrases, singing the refrain, “I’ve been where the mother’s go to pray,” and watching our new companion inhale toxic fumes between video takes, was at once tender and tragic, one of the most emotionally overwhelming creative rituals I’ve had.

Before our group session on the mountain, I went into the studio, and – envisioning Galina’s dance style of fluid movements and love for ritualistic phrases – I sang a simple, a cappella base line. I then added another line on top of this, and repeated this process about 40 times. This looping process is especially useful for entering a trance, as with each pass, the music starts taking on a life of its own that I can then respond to.

OLDER POSTS:

YUKI & EZRA // SESSION NO. 1 // RECONNECTION

Dance: Yukiko Masui // Music: Ezra Axelrod

Improvisation is an exercise in empathy that can change the way we communicate and inhabit space. To improvise, I must first trust myself, and believe that my instinct and capability are valid. If I am improvising in a group, I must extend that trust to my collaborators. We agree, in a sense, to be naked in front of each other, with all our rawness and imperfections. When we improvise, we open the door to the possibility of our personal and collective expression. If I manage to apply the lessons of trust, candour, humility, and spontaneity I learn in an improv session to my life outside of the studio, I feel I am truly practicing the lessons creativity can teach.

This improv came about simply because I missed Yuki, and I wanted to connect outside of specific project work. By meeting each other in the improv dimension, I feel like we can fuel our respective creative fires while we’re not working on a specific commission.

Yuki helps me reconnect my music to my body. Her movements are powerful, fluid, and androgynously sensual. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my creative process is getting sucked into making music while sitting at my computer, staring at a screen, playing sounds on a MIDI controller. Voice is my main instrument, and improvising is an opportunity for me to step back from the computer, and explore how I can generate sound with not only my vocal cords, but my whole body.

To make the music for this video, I extracted a vocal line from my improv session. I duplicated it five times in Logic and repitched each new instance with Melodyne. I then improvised a glitchy percussion rhythm on top of this, added some reverb, EQ and compressors, and that’s about it. I recorded my improv in a noisy space in Cali, Colombia. You can hear the birds chirping throughout. Usually I’d be freaked out by how noisy the recording is, but the exercise of accepting these types of imperfections made me fall in love with the ambient sound. Because it’s there, I’ll forever be reminded of the place I was in when I had this experience.

YUKI & EZRA // SESSION NO. 2 // PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE

Dance: Yukiko Masui / Music: Ezra Axelrod / Clarinet Improv: Emma Burgess

This second improv between me and London-based choreographer Yukiko Masui is an exploration of the blurry line between the private and public realms that artists navigate in our work. How much should we reveal? How candid can we really be? What compromises should we make for the sake of the collective conversation? What do we omit as artists, out of fear of being laughed at or rejected?


Today’s cultural trend might promote an idea of “hyper-realism” and “hyper-honesty,” but the presence of a camera or a microphone by default introduces an external perspective, a kind of voyeurism, to which we adapt, to which we conform. How honest, really, is our “hyper-honesty” in this context? These questions have often been an obstacle for me.

In this music improv, I dove into some of my biggest discomforts. I wanted to reconnect my musical expression to a sense of my own sensuality. I consider sensuality an expression of our life force, a state of openness to ourselves and our surroundings. After my improv session, I felt compelled to narrate the experience into the microphone. Doing so was one of the most uncomfortable exercises I think I’ve ever done! Verbalising my own experience of pleasure made my skin crawl. But persisting through the process gave rise to not only a series of beautiful, candid conversations with Yuki, but a wider discussion with my peers about the potential of expression in these points of discomfort, to understand what our resistance represents in our broader exploration, and what overcoming that resistance might make possible.

The inclusion of Emma’s clarinet improv was spontaneous: I had recorded it with her the week I moved from London to Colombia two years ago, and had never used it in a project. I remembered it was in the same key as this current improv, and the sensual tone of the instrument meshed seamlessly with this session, and served as a connecting thread to a place and time in which I felt rooted in my lifeforce. A reminder to continue nurturing that flame.

YUKI, AJANI, ADRIÁN & EZRA // SESSION NO. 3 // INVITATIONS

Dance: Yukiko Masui & Ajani Johnson-Goffe // Music: Ezra Axelrod & Adrián Viafara

Sometimes inviting someone to share in the intimacy of my creative process is the hardest thing to do. I’m good at producing work independently, and over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to a process that is for the most part solitary. I realised a few months back that this tendency wasn’t serving me anymore. I was missing out on the most fundamental part of being an artist: the intimate connections you can build with others to collectively push the boundaries of our expression and consciousness. When I started reaching out to my peers to do improv sessions, I experienced a reconnection between my instinct and my body, making music not as a rational task, but as an extension of my physicality.

It was a rush to create this music during an improv with Adrián Viafara, a musician in Cali who I admire greatly. We set up two microphones, put on headphones, and started stomping, clapping and singing out rhythms until we entered into a trance. The point of the exercise isn’t creating a polished track, but experiencing how new musical ideas manifest in our bodies, discovering ways of moving our muscles to create sounds we hadn’t imagined before. From these exercises we can draw inspiration for our individual projects. But most importantly, we’re left with the rush of having shared an intensely intimate creative experience, full of life and honesty.

After this session, I sent the music to Yukiko Masui in London, who asked Ajani Johnson-Goffe to do a dance improv in response to Adrián and my session. This video is the result.