Listen to “Odd/Even, Part 1” from The Ghost Opera

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In the early 1960s, as musicians began using theater games to teach each other improvisation, a new style of ensemble music gradually emerged. The seeds of the Ghost Opera Company were planted in Chicago in 1963. By then I had learned from Viola Spolin, the revered mother of theater games, to develop methods of musicalizing actors’ work. In the process, I was developing a solo piano style of my own. Seeking like-minded musicians I began to experiment first with percussionist George Marsh, and then bassist Clyde Flowers and woodwind master Rich Fudoli. Our quartet, The Chicago Improvising Players, was probably the first free-music group to use musical games as the foundation for improvisatory technique. Our early concerts were wild, complex, randomized, and very happy. Over time, as our listening became more refined, the games became subtler, the details finer. Games played in sequence became Game Symphonies. The drama implicit in the form became more and more conscious. Eventually, the game discipline proved itself authentic by falling away, leaving players free to create a spontaneously woven ensemble music.

Three of us (Mathieu, Marsh, and Flowers) moved to San Francisco. From 1968 through 1974 I taught improvisation at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a core-curriculum course required of all freshmen. Some students became such excellent players that we formed a performance ensemble called The Ghost Opera Company with the trio at its core. The singers, using spontaneously made-up languages, and the instrumentalists all became characters in our own unwritten opera; there were as many interpretations as there were listeners. The idea behind the name was that the opera’s narrative was amorphous as a ghost, floating freely from mind to mind.

A few of the games we practiced:

  • Pete and Repeat: each player keeps looping back, but to different places
  • Sparse As Possible: play as little as you can get away with
  • Nothing New: play only what you’ve heard someone (including yourself) play
  • Syllogism: the ensemble collectively plays three phrases corresponding to thesis, antithesis, and synthesis
  • Pulse: a given pulse is locked into and diverged from repeatedly
  • Slow Motion: play energetic music, but in slow motion
  • Seven Breaths: two or more singers sing in synchronized exhalations
  • Give It Up: the moment you find yourself at the crux of your phrase, give it over to another player
  • Sudden Stop: the ensemble attempts to come to a clean stop without a visual cue

Odd/Even and The Narrow Pass are four acts from an infinite number of acts in the ongoing evolution of the form. Although nothing in this music is written down, composition orders it in unique ways. By practicing musical games, the players acquire both personal range of expression and ensemble discipline. But the music on this recording has been further structured. Over the course of three years, I spliced out, from roughly 35 hours of recorded music, about 300 passages that were especially clear. These I organized as best I could into likely categories, each of which might gel into a scene. I would memorize the music of each fragment — especially beginnings and endings — as best I could. Then I would try many combinations of assemblage for each scene. This took place in the days well before Pro Tools: tape editors used a demagnetized razor blade, a splicing block, and pressure tape. We developed quick wrists, beady eyes, and slow-motion ears.

The entire array was eventually mocked up using a 7.5 inches-per-second, quarter-inch stereo dupe. Although a few of the passages were a minute or longer, some of the shortest passages were but a fraction of a second, on pieces of tape two or three inches long. When the quarter-inch copy was finally assembled, the process was replicated — with the dedicated help of Valerie Clausen and Nina Holmes — splicing directly into the 2-inch, 8-track, 15 ips master reels. When the splicing was finished, we mixed the master as best we could in real time with dials, knobs, and faders — sometimes thirty- or forty-finger mixes.

The first two acts (Odd/Even) have at their core the original Chicago Improvising Quartet, with various combinations of Conservatory players and San Francisco colleagues sitting in. Under the title The Ghost Opera, and with the aid of private funding, it was released as an LP in 1971. In the free-market, free-music spirit of the times, the album was given away to the public. “It was financed by a gift,” said the liner notes, “so please keep it clear of the marketplace. Pass it on to a friend and keep music free.”

In 1973, the Narrow Pass was completed. The title refers to the fine line improvising musicians walk to remain in the pure moment of listening. Sadly, just as the album was about to be released by Desto Records, its owner passed away, and the project was discontinued. The present CD is the premiere release.

Each age has its characteristic feeling. The feelings of creative possibility and free association in the sixties and early seventies seemed especially bright. When I walked the streets of San Francisco, every passerby seemed like a kindred soul. The air was quickened; you could fly through it. The world would be forever changed. In this atmosphere, much free jazz and improvisatory chamber music had its nascence. Now, in 2006, more than 40 years after The Ghost Opera began, we have new technologies, new ears, and new aesthetics. I hope this music has a chance to speak again to folks who remember those times, and to speak in new ways to contemporary ears.