Mutable Music (2004)

Listen to “The Percussion Sets the Pulse and the Piano Tells the Story” from Game / No Game

W. A. Mathieu, piano
George Marsh, drumset, percussion

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When George and I play together we tend to hear compositionally; that is, we try to weave coherent stories told through musical ideas. Surface texture, which is like the atmosphere of a story, does arise, of course, but strictly musical ideas drive the narrative from the inside. This means remembering (as best we can) what we’ve been playing. Consequently the pieces are short, typically three or four minutes.

Viola Spolin characterized the original theater games she introduced as “…a timeless moment when all are mutually engaged in experience. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s where the joy is, the everlasting spiral.” In the 1950s, as theater games emerged in the culture, artists were learning a new definition of the present, which seemed limitless and beckoning.

In 1959 I became the musical director of The Second City Theater’s founding company. As part of our training program, under Viola’s watchful eye, we developed theater games designed to musicalize the actors’ perceptions. Mutual trust was the key. When George and I met in 1964, we began to invent musical games to guide us through the uncharted territory of free music. As we discovered our musical kinship, we found two other like-minded players (Rich Fudoli, winds, and Clyde Flowers, bass). As the Chicago Improvising Players, we developed a repertoire of games arranged in series and performed as Game Symphonies.

I joined San Francisco’s Committee Theater in 1967, where theater games were already a flourishing source of discipline and inspiration. The San Francisco Conservatory hired me to teach improvisation as a required course. Clyde and George moved to the Bay Area in 1968, and we three became the core trio of The Ghost Opera Company, featuring gifted students in the Conservatory and many guests from around town, including actors from The Committee.

By 1970, free improvisation was in the air, and game playing was well on its way to becoming a standard training method for both actors and musicians internationally. Meanwhile George and I have had four decades of collaboration to develop our work and trust. Game/No Game, recorded between 1999 and 2002, represents not so much the games themselves as their end result: the musical mutuality that games engender.