By Kelly Burnette (August 2003)
The impulse is the catalyst,
improvisation is action and the exploration
LaDonna Smith has been doing improv for almost 30 years. A virtuoso violinist, teacher, and co-founder of The Improvisor (“the international journal of free improvisation”), she is the image of feminine empowerment, the female criminal in pursuit of the ecstatic, potent, subversive and transcendent. LaDonna has done about as much as any of the improvising pioneers Stateside to raise the bar, to obliterate expectations/preconceptions and, in the end, form new vocabularies in music. Never mind that she did this in a scene dominated by men or that she did it from Tuscaloosa and eventually Birmingham, AL., solo and along side her performing partner Davey Williams. The freakin’ odds were stacked not against her, but on top of her. But anyone who has had the singular pleasure of being in her presence will attest to the fact that if anyone might prevail against said odds, it’d be her. She’s incredibly pleasant. She always seems to be aware of everything going on around her. But at the same time, sitting across the table from her can imbue you with a sense of power and belonging rarely felt. And even though I have my suspicions she realizes this she never holds it over your head. She just drops the sonic block on you while she plays. Her eye is your storm.
PSF: What is your background in music? Are you classically trained? What led you into improvisation?
LS: The first real concert I ever went to hear was Carlos Montoya, classical guitarist at the old concert hall at Birmingham Southern College. As a six year old, I got to sit in the balcony, and hang off the rail just over the stage. All I could see was the shining glare of his bald head, hunching over a guitar with his foot on a stool, but when he started to play, I was mesmerized. It was just so startlingly beautiful! And the acoustics were just fabulous and up close. He did some very exciting flamenco, and I was just sure he was making everything up, right there, fingers running around and stopping on the most delicious sonorities! I wanted to learn to play the guitar like that!
I was given my first lesson on the piano when I was 7. I was told if I started it, I could never quit. So far I haven’t. My early teachers were at the Conservatory of Music at Birmingham Southern College. Later on, I took up the guitar on my own. First a Stella from Sears (remember those?), then a flat top, and finally as a teen, I arrived to the classical guitar, about the same time that I also acquired an accordion. Teaching oneself to play these two instruments began my process of free improvisation. Later on in college, I was steered into a music composition degree after writing a beautiful art song to some words by Kahil Gibran. I taught electronic music on instruments, which are now classified as ancient (early patch cord synthesizers) and got into “sound” and “experimental music,” sound collage and synthesis.
Soon, I discovered the viola could make just as bizarre of noises and glissandi’s as the ARP2600, and it was a lot easier to haul around than the synthesizers, B3’s and Leslies of the day, so I pursued it seriously, improvising my way through lessons and the University of Alabama Orchestra. Since I was a late starter and couldn’t really play it yet. What else, then, could I resort to, other than hitting all of the whole notes in the orchestra rehearsals, and a getting by with a little hidden improv? I played piano for the U of A Jazz Ensemble, but was eventually kicked out for “not swinging,” and so that launched me into more creativity (without the rules of theory and swinging). But of course, most importantly, I met my beloved sound artist/guitarist partner Davey Williams, who triggered in me the notion that anything we played was legitimate, and that all we had to do was hear it that way. So LISTENING is a large part of the collective consciousness that we began to explore together musically.
The above is extracted from Locales For Ecstacy, with LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams and Cinnie Cole
PSF: Are you dissatisfied with older modes of music?
LS: I’m not dissatisfied with older modes. I love all kinds of music, except lame Christmas arrangements.
PSF: I remember once I told you that at times I just felt like jumping up and yelling when you (and Davey at that time) were playing. You said, “you should”. I mentioned it to Davey and he was more hesitant. What, to your mind, is the significance of a non-barrier between artist/performer at your gigs? And what do you think differentiates you and Davey, if anything, when it comes to this?
LS: Well, when I said “you should,” I meant it, because if nothing else, it would be the direct cause of a little theater and humor, which always helps a performance. I mean, if people can’t have a good time, then it’s all over. But in all respect, I also love a focus so sharp, it cuts the edge of beauty, in whatever form it comes out. So, Davey probably wouldn’t want to be (or feel) heckled. Who would? There’s a difference.
Audience response can only feed the energy of the moment (good or bad). Response is the key to true communication. If airwaves weren’t moved when a string is stroked, no cause and effect, then nothing is truly happening, is it? Fact is, something is always happening. Why not BE a part of it, if only even as an observer. Better yet, giving feedback for the taking (of the experience).
PSF: What do you think of the volume and quality of improv today?
LS: I feel two ways about the deluge of CD’s that seem to be everywhere, like old tires in the landfill. What’s good is that they represent people’s (singular/or plural) attempts to access their own creativity, and capture a meaningful expression of that. What’s not good is that there’s just way too much emphasis on product and stuff. “Like hey, we got CD’s for sale during the break, blah blah!” Then you get there to the table, and don’t know which one to choose. Big deal, I came to a concert to hear the real action happening. Too much product output. Not enough meaningful encounters, like you said, “audience participation”… either expressing a response, or bringing an instrument to the stage for a brief expressive interaction with the grace of the performer, perhaps… and a thank you.
But on the other hand, it’s important to create workshop opportunities for that, so as not to dilute the pure expression of the artist. We being the obsessive, creative, and individual entities that we are�and so we tend to hold Sacred Space there. And besides that, you have to have patience for a certain amount of mediocrity. It’s only after we’ve waded enough in the shallow waters that we become ready for the deep end. Everybody’s done it.
PSF: How do you know when your muse is speaking? Does it knock you down or just brush you on the shoulder?
LS: Well, not on the shoulder, but in the heart. It really speaks to me in my heart, and I might feel warm and happy, and I see or hear something that I feel I’ve channeled, and not only by my own power.
PSF: That makes sense, because among other things, your music seems to be about ecstatic experience. Could you give me some insight into your views on, well, mysticism and music as a vehicle of transcendence?
LS: That’s of course the GREAT Mystery. I think if you just think about it, when you see the stars all strewn across the sky on a dark night, or see the sight of blood on some road kill on the highway and realize what a miracle of life that dead body was just minutes before the encounter, well… we don’t have the answers, do we? And music IS a vehicle of transcendence, but it takes the mind to make it that way. It takes first and foremost an awareness of what you’re hearing, and what that represents not so much style, or content, although certain musical languages speak to some, and not to others… is understood by some, and not others just like diverse languages divide along the “language-divide.” But if you get on the “ride,” you can go with it just as you might on a carnival ride. It takes you somewhere, even though you may get off just where you started from, but perhaps in a different emotional or psychological state. So where did you go? Did you feel something? What do you remember of it? Don’t remember nothing? Does that mean it really didn’t happen? But you feel different than before, right? Yes? No?
PSF: When you started playing, and specifically when you began improvising, did you or have you ever felt like it was a boy’s club?
LS: Yeah, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it WAS a boys club with a rare bird here and there. I was a blue bird. But I enjoyed hanging out with grays (guys). They had more radical and in-depth conversations, everything from old shoe leather to Louis IX ‘s underpants, and how many prostitutes and beggars ate in the halls of the royal palace, and spent the nights… or which grey generals tromped through the section of the swamp near Gainesville, Aliceville, Tuscaloosa, or (anywhere between Charleston and the Mississippi). You had to listen to conversations about old muskets and new music…drink coffee and smoke lots of local herbery… You wore the same drab clothes everyday for weeks or months, and ate cheese occasionally. You celebrated Mardis Gras and All Saints Day, and Day of the Dead. You constantly wrote non-sequitorials and painted on the same page with everybody else, and got together frequently for cigar smoking music blasting. The energies were anarchy, dadaistic modes of behavior, surrealism, and poetic terrorism. A very elite bunch of intellectual heavyweights ran the group and women weren’t really allowed, except for me (and Anne LeBaron). I don’t know exactly how we scored, but I think it was because we were intense enough to listen and be present (and we both could actually write music, unlike the grays!!!). So our skills and willingness to go walk the plank of social ridicule with these guys created the slim toleration of our sexual diagnosis.
When Davey, Theodore Bowen, and I finally loaded up our VW vans to head out to Henry Kaiserland, we found nice couples putting us up everywhere, but the musicians were always guys, except for two that we met on the maiden trek, and that was Diamanda Gala (at the time a jazz singer, who had started experimentation) and Jill Burton, another singer. Same in NYC, with the exception of the women that Eugene Chadbourne played with, Leslie Dalaba, trumpetist and Polly Bradfield.
Of course, in subsequent years (beyond 1975), I met others… Sue Ann Harkey comes to mind and in the ’80’s, Myra Melford comes to mind but both of those women were composers. The seventies were a time when American Women Composers (an organization based in Washington D.C.) was founded so it was a beginning for change. Pauline Oliveros was well known at the time and in Europe, Irene Schweitzer was well known. Maggie Nichols was well known in England and along with her, Lindsay Cooper. Joel Leandre in France. Those were the early women that I had heard of, and got the opportunity to meet as our travels extended to Europe. The climate of free improvisation in Europe was much more established and connected than here, at that time. Things have changed a lot since then.
PSF: Are there any specific female musicians or artists that you point to as an influence or inspiration?
LS: Most of the early influence, which I acknowledge, was from association with the crazy grays in my own backyard although I was also influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and always by Beethoven. As for women, although not at that time, but NOW, I can say that I find beautiful inspiration and community through the work and attitudes of Pauline Oliveros.
PSF: Derek Bailey has spoken of his work as being “non-idiomatic.” Do you feel the same way about your work? Can music, like yours which has syntax and an inner logic, truly be non-idiomatic? Isn’t the act of making a coherent music, in a sense, creating a new language?
LS: Yeah, in the early days, we tried real hard not to be influenced by anyone, but to go into that trans: trance…transport…transportation… trans… transcend… transcendence… transcendprovisation… that comes from transfiguration… from tranced out… psychic automatism…! (whew)
We tried to steer clear of anything that sounded “like” anything else and sometimes engage in just raw energies leading the body into making all this noise but with a “listening ear to shape it” like free composition so when you’d hear a rhythmic set up, you’d solo on it, or set something up and watch Davey do guitar theater with it, or duel it out in flights of fury, or float slowly as though drugged, or asleep, or make imaginary landscapes- all of these were areas, not idioms…
But yeah, you are right about musical language. After so much time spent in the laboratory of right brained discovery, who in the name of the left brain, would not be able to recognize personal patterns and preferences beginning to take shape and become signatures? So, yes, now when I play, there are areas which, to me, are very familiar and skills which I have built through practice, that are like the tools of vocabulary ready to refine the next chapter of the epic masterpiece. I suppose I’ve created my own idioms and after having done so, I’m just as happy to borrow from someone else’s snippets for collage, from other idiomatic musics to create a new range of imagery from time to time, that my audience may find as familiar. It after all de-stresses them from the intensity of just having to listen to mine!
For a complete discography and further details about LaDonna’s music and ideas,