I wrote the following essay in April, 2005 for Peter van Bergen and INfIM, the Institute for Improvisation. Hopefully, you will soon be able to see this essay in context at INfIM.com.

The Flora, Fauna, and Music of El Cerrito, California

One of the great things about improvised music has always been its globalized lack of center. Improvised music is made by musicians who come together from who knows where, and are able to play together regardless of spoken language, age, race, gender, and all categories of being which so often make it nearly impossible for any other kind of positive interaction. Why is it, then, that I am embarking on an article which extolls the exact opposite: music which is made locally, music which is decidedly homemade?

It isn't that I believe that improvised music is an ally of the dreaded globalisation so many of us abhor -- though, come to think of it, it might be -- if it had a few more dedicated and thoughtful listeners. It isn't that I regret my years of efforts to bring European musicians here to play at the Beanbender's music series I co-founded and led from 1995 to nearly the present. It isn't that I intend to never tour again (though it's gotten much more difficult, mostly for family reasons). It's just that right now, in 2005, it seems to me that listeners have caught up with and surpassed musicians in their desire to consume music from all the corners of Earth. This trend may facilitate globalization or it may hinder it -- but a person whose sources of cultural information are all thousands of miles away is disconnected from his own community.

Here in El Cerrito, a town just north of Berkeley and Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco, audiences flock to concerts by musicians who play music which rightfully belongs a continent or two away. There is an excellent Balinese gamelan and a Bulgarian women's chorus based within minutes of my home (almost all performers are American), a group that does Indian/jazz fusion a few streets away, several producers of electronica whose music include samples of pretty much everything -- all nearby, all very successful. However, there is not the slightest interest in the music of El Cerrito, and to highlight this sad fact I am now calling my music "Music of El Cerrito." From the northern hills region, that is. Although there is a composer five doors down the street whose music is nothing like mine, and for that matter, neither is the music that my wife or son compose. So really, it is just one music of El Cerrito, but no matter: people talk of "the music of India," with its billion-plus people, and my town has under thirty-thousand, so I am considerably more entitled to claim that I represent my little region.

I've discovered that I really like working with the musicians who happen to be around. I like working with melodies which are born right under my nose, and then, while growing up, perhaps walk off for some distance. My recent music has its origins in the things I find myself humming as I walk, and I take care that the music never leave the ground for longer than I can jump. That is, the structures remain simple and clear, changing now and then, but only as necessary. My band, Daniel Popsicle (an ensemble of from seven to twenty players) plays my written music, almost exclusively in rehearsal and recording, and our improvisations only begin by accident, as when two or three players are warming up at the same time. This we use this as the basis an improvisation: I want our thoughts as improvisers to begin away from the sorts of big, existential questions, away from blank white canvases, away from history and expectation or lack of history and lack of expectation. I want the music to arise out of the mindless connection between player and instrument. I want our improvisation to begin with the very scraps which are edited off in most recording sessions.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and my favorite recent one was to write a concerto for Fred Frith and Toychestra called "What Leave Behind." Frith we all know; he is now (and I hope will be for a long time!) teaching at Mills College in Oakland. Toychestra you might know as a group of five or six women who live in Oakland and play toy instruments. Among the five or six there are only a couple with some ability to read music. Usually they write and learn their own music by ear, and their rhythm and pitch can be uncertain, whereas Frith is an excellent musician on all levels. However, it seemed to me a great combination because both parties have a similar delight in found objects, in accidents and mistakes, in strange mixtures of dark and light colors, and in finding bits of beauty, for example, in the lint which collects in a clothes dryer. (Lexa Walsh of Toychestra has an exhibition of tiny suits of clothes made from her dryer lint.) Okay, so working with such people was not much of a stretch. These are kindred spirits.

In my own rare performances these days (a couple per year), I try to arrange for children to infest and to some degree sabotage things. I don't have an idealistic vision of children as especially pure, but I do like them more than I like most adults, and they make a good audience, especially when there is space for them to run, and/or some art materials at hand. I would include plants and animals to a greater degree as well, but I'm not convinced that they would appreciate being present. Instead, I try to meditate upon my music (very loosely and unprofessionally), usually after it's recorded, and often my thoughts turn to metaphors from the animal and plant kingdoms. One recent recording, an hour-long melody with shifting accompaniment performed by an 18-member version of Daniel Popsicle, entitled "Moving About, Humming, Still Our Flowers Are Blooming, Under the Old Portcullis," is to some degree "about" the relationship between these two kingdoms, and also speculation as to how they might team up to break through the walls of the artificial constructs which house mechanical kings. The sequel, which lasts for two hours, is called "Wise King Taken by the Foolish One," and in this work, while the theme of subversion is still strong, it is also a meditation on the difficulty of telling the bad guys from the good, the real from the fake, and the smart from the stupid.

The metaphors of the artificial and the mechanical are directed in large part at what we call, with different shades of meaning: the system. The system itself is a metaphor, standing in for the incredibly complex constraints which make such misery for so many if not all of us. The system is a global structure, and my belief is that it is weakest at the most local levels, at those smallest, most common aspects of existence, over which its rule is not yet total. Every day, mankind's collective commerce, law, science, and "art" bring more things first to the attention and thence under the control of the system, and so the last key to understanding my music is to know that it is against system, even while it employs systematic elements.

But enough about me. I wonder about you, who read this. What do you make of things? Where are we all headed, as individuals who must someday die, and together as a planetful of living beings? How does your appreciation of music and the arts relate to your philosophy? What are you going to do with that which has been put out there? What's your deal?

Dan Plonsey,
April 9, 2005, El Cerrito, California, USA

N.B.: Since the above was written (and - I believe - published), I have as yet received exactly sero responses. You would be the first!
November 3, 2006