MISHA GLOUBERMAN'S TERRIBLE NOISES:
LEISURE SUIT FOR AN INAUDIBLE COMMUNITY

By Carl Wilson

Three o'clock one chilly October morning, you've been wandering the streets of Toronto for hours looking at the projections on walls, hearing the bands in emergency-vehicle garages and watching the short films in car washes and breathing in the artificial fields of fog on the university campus that make up Nuit Blanche, the "all-night contemporary art thing" that gives tens of thousands of people an insomniac aesthetic adventure every autumn. At an intersection a couple of cheerful young women with chattering teeth urge you to head down the street to something called "Terrible Noises for Beautiful People."

A few minutes later you find yourself waiting in a line and then being ushered into a candlelit room where a tall bearded man awaits: "Welcome! Welcome! I'm Misha Glouberman, welcome!" he calls out. Most of the other artists tonight haven't greeted you effusively and introduced themselves. They also haven't been wearing suits, as Glouberman is. You could be at a workplace team-building exercise, you think. If it wasn't 3 in the morning. You could perhaps be starting your first day of kindergarten, if you weren't a little drunk.

And what happens next is a little like a class, and a little like going to summer camp, and a little like joining the community choir, except that it consists of growling, chirping, humming, sputtering, mewling, babbling, chittering, yelping, hissing and, oh yes, listening, when you remember Glouberman's advice that it's wise to pause and make yourself a one-person audience for your own performance now and then. Then as abruptly as it began it ends and you are ushered out, with a sudden pang for the group of strangers with whom you've just been making the kinds of sounds you've probably only made before into someone's ear in a private moment of abandon. You feel that you know them, a little, though unlike in most brief social encounters, you walk away with no information about what they do for a living or, say, what bands they like, but only the way that one short guy in the purple scarf bares one side of his teeth when he's imitating the sound of an airplane engine revving up or the girl with the black curly hair makes electric-jolt twitches with her arms when she gibbers like a monkey. And somehow that knowledge seems at least as worthwhile.

Early in his landmark 1952 essay Leisure, The Basis of Culture, German philosopher Josef Pieper points out that the Greek word for leisure is the root of the modern word school. Instead of being just a kind of work (and preparation for work), as harried parents and politicians tend to treat it today, learning for Plato and the ancients was a kind of serious play. Toronto teacher, artist, animator and organizer Misha Glouberman groups his activities under the rubric of The Misha Glouberman School of Learning, a suppositional atelier name that at first seems goofily redundant but subtly is much less frivolous: In his classes and events, he rejuvenates people's innate capacity to learn by freeing them from the goal-oriented regimes of their workday and schoolday and household-managing lives and suggesting an exploratory approach to leisure.

Of course, even in a work-obsessed culture people still have hobbies: When they skydive or mountain climb or join book clubs or knitting circles or garage bands, they're often explicitly trying to liberate untapped personal potential to, as the self-help manuals put it, "self-actualize." What sets Glouberman's approach apart, and arguably makes it an art, is in part that he proposes people devote time to something almost aggressively useless: Getting together in groups and making silly noises with their mouths. Besides the Nuit Blanche project, he has done it in small weekly classes in vocal (and other non-verbal) improvisation, in workshops with dance companies and other arts groups, in classes training non-musicians to play New York composer John Zorn's game-structure piece Cobra and in a large-group, one-night session known only as Misha Glouberman's Birthday Party.

Objectively speaking, making blues riffs with electric guitars is not actually any more practical, but there's a cultural precedent for the concept that blues-riffing is a route to some kind of an achievement, even if most garage bands are only honouring that idea in the breach. There is something that you can get right or wrong. Like most living art, Glouberman's project causes a minor internal racket in which we try to grasp for rules to apply, for criteria by which to judge or justify the pleasure and discomfort it arouses.

Glouberman himself leaves that justification unspoken. It would be easy for him to claim to be training participants in creativity, giving them a primal therapeutic experience of mind-body connection or teaching them how to find the improvising musician within. It would probably allow him to charge more money, get more grants and find stronger institutional support. But it would be a narrow and boring answer to the implicit puzzle, foreclosing on the chance that in a room full of people all going "glug, glug, glug" simultaneously, every of them could be deriving wildly varying, even opposing, benefits. Glouberman offers a set of careful, step-by-step instructions ("now see if you can do this -- ") without divulging whether they're meant to build a boat or a hippopotamus.

The most obvious hypothesis, of course, is that they're meant to build music. The structured-noise element of Glouberman's work calls to mind the indeterminate-sound approaches of composer John Cage as well as the wide range of "free improvisation" practiced by musicians inside and outside of the jazz tradition. But it's an uneasy kinship, as many of those musicians (though probably not Cage) might take offence at the prospect that untutored amateurs, in the course of a few hours or days, can learn to do what they do. Improvised music rejects many of the traditional strictures of commercial music, from tonality to rhythmic regularity, but it tends - with notable exceptions such as the music of Pauline Oliveros, who presents music-making as a form of meditation - to affirm the distinction between skilled musician and lay listener that has dominated the last century.

After decades in existence, it's conspicuous that free improvisation continues to be such a minority concern. Committed musicians and listeners are often righteously indignant that a wider audience has not embraced their cause, blaming the music industry or capitalism in general for dulling audience's senses. As well, musicians who improvise in jazz, so-called "free" improv, noise music and other forms often say that theirs is a "hot" medium, in McLuhan's sense that it depends upon a high level of listener interaction: Because the sounds they make are not organized into traditional musical structures, in which repeated patterns, tensions and resolutions create a recognizable aural narrative, enjoyment of the experience depends on very active observation and interpretation of the musical gestures made and the interactions between the players. Western culture, meanwhile, has increasingly leaned towards a cooler passive relationship between entertainment and audience. (At least prior to the explosion of participatory creativity on the Internet, a significant influence on Glouberman's own sensibility.)

In my experience, improvisation is much easier to appreciate if you've done it. If you've played unscripted music with other people, you've been surprised by what a transcendent thing it can be, by the unexpected flashes of humour and conflict and beauty that arise, and what it feels like to generate ideas without premeditation. It's like attending a party where the bounds of acceptable behaviour have loosed, that risky, thrilling feeling. But how popular is it to go watch other people have a party while you sit silently in a chair?

Before Glouberman began working with vocal sounds, he was already exploring the zone between socializing and performing. Having in his youth in Montreal and at Harvard University been involved with improvised theatre/comedy (of the sketch-ensemble, Whose Line Is This Anyway, Theatresports, etc., sort), he realized that he found the actors' workshops and rehearsals -- the process of learning to create spontaneous characters, situations and narratives, with groups of collaborators -- more compelling than the shows that came afterwards. As a result, after moving to Toronto, he spent years teaching classes in improvisation that were ends in themselves rather than development towards performance.

He also began hosting (and continues to host) Trampoline Hall, a popular monthly series created by local writer Sheila Heti, in which people give lectures on subjects in which they're not professionally expert, followed by audience questions and discussion. By setting up a context in which expertise doesn't matter -- or is as likely to reside in the seats as on stage -- Trampoline Hall foregrounds personality and interaction rather than content or presentational form. A key to the series' success has been Glouberman's talent at perceiving the unfolding dynamic of each show and guiding it, often through humour, towards unpredictable outcomes.

In this way, Glouberman's work has a lot in common with a movement in contemporary art towards participatory performance or "relational aesthetics," as Parisian theorist-curator Nicolas Bourriaud named it in the 1990s. In a wide variety of forms, with various degrees of manipulation, frivolousness and difficulty, artists have been developing works that depend on active intervention or co-creation by the receivers (or at least non-artist participants) -- by holding visiting hours in a gallery installation that simulates the artist's own apartment, for example, or by photographing strangers holding placards on which they've written messages of their own choosing, or by asking passersby on the street to stop and learn a dance step. As Glouberman expands his own repertoire, the social aspect becomes ever-more visible -- for instance in exercises that ask participants to form spontaneous mini-ensembles and then ask other participants to "conduct" their vocal outbursts, or to split into "posses" that stalk other groups and challenge them to gibberish sound-wars.

Applying that spirit to improvised music is not unprecedented. In the late 1960s, for instance, British composer Cornelius Cardew formed the Scratch Orchestra, a large ensemble of professional and amateur community musicians who improvised from graphic scores. The project was based on a populist-socialist stance, part of Cardew's long effort to invent a "people's music." While membership was open, however, there was still a divide between members and non-members, between performance and spectatorship, between process and product. Closer to home, Toronto improviser Mike Hansen created his own "scratch" performances -- punning on the term for vinyl-vandalizing hip-hop DJs -- by distributing toy turntables to entire audiences and having them play to cues. As well, in the nearby suburb of Brampton, musician Rich Marsella (aka Friendly Rich) hosts an annual "parade of noises" consisting of hundreds of schoolchildren who, after some training in improvised music making, tromp through the streets clanging pans and blowing horns. I'm sure there are equivalents in other places.

But you could also compare Glouberman's work with group music-making in churches, for instance southern U.S. Sacred Harp or "shape note" singing, which uses a simplified notation system and a rough-hewn harmonic style to encourage total group participation, so that the choir-congregation is in effect its own audience, or can feel collectively that they're singing only for the ears of God.

That's quite a contrast with the strand of rhetoric around improvisational music that often likens a concert to a ritual experience and the musicians to shamans, "technicians of the sacred" whose special skills and sensitivities channels a spiritual force to the fortunate assembled witnesses. Without explicitly opposing that model, Glouberman's work comes with a streak of Mark Twain-style debunker's energy, offering some do-it-yourself demystification. No better demonstration exists than the project that, so far, has seemed to me his most complete and eye-opening achievement, "Open Cobra," which has been performed only once to date, in the basement-club space of a boutique hotel on Queen Street in Toronto.

An elaborate act of creative piracy and transformative pedagogy, Open Cobra jumps off from New York avant-garde jazz composer John Zorn's famous 1980s "game piece," Cobra, whose score consists of a set of guidelines and strategies for structured improvisation so complicated that to the untutored eye they look like total chaos. Cues are passed by players using hand and body signals to a "prompter" (who appears to the audience to be the conductor) who then relays them to the other players using placards printed with codes that look like meaningless hieroglyphics. The musicians frequently put on hats or bandannas and then for no clear reason take them off again. They're quite likely to burst into laughter or groans at odd moments. As in much of Zorn's music, there are abrupt changes in style or genre. The piece can end quite abruptly or stagger on for ages, and the whole thing is apt (though not always) to leave audiences feel like a prank has just been played at their expense, because one of Zorn's stipulations (in keeping with the saxophonist's confrontational attitude, especially in his earlier work) is that the rules of the game should not be published or divulged but only passed along between musicians through a kind of oral tradition.

Open Cobra begins with just such a performance of Cobra by a cast of invited musicians. Then comes another round of the game-composition with one twist -- the cues that the musicians are following are revealed to the audience, projected step-by-step onto a video screen using a "Cobra-Tron" software program designed by Glouberman (who in another life was a data-base programmer). While the instructions in the rules are now laid bare, the performers still seem to be executing the elaborate moves -- forming subgroups, stating themes, recapitulating earlier material, trading off single-note bursts -- with supernatural dexterity.

At this point the spectatorial portion of the event is over, and anyone not willing to participate is asked to leave. In the next couple of hours, Glouberman begins warming up the crowd with some simple vocal exercises, first singly then in pairs and groups. He has them practice some of the basic skills the musicians who played Cobra were using, such as switching from one kind of sound to its conceptual opposite, for example from sweet to harsh sounds and back again. Bit by bit, the participants accustom themselves to using their voices in all these unfamiliar ways. And then Glouberman, with casual modesty, flounts Zorn's restrictions by handing out small notice cards that list the basic rules of Cobra and the signals that accompany them: Pointing to one's mouth and holding up three fingers, for example, means that everyone currently making sounds should "fade out" while the rest of the players "fade in." Pointing to one's head and then at another player is a request for that player to remember what she is currently doing and be ready to return to it on demand later in the piece.

After a couple of hours of such oral calisthenics, members of the crowd are brought on stage and, with the mnemonic aid of the cards and the Cobra-Tron, actually perform Cobra for one another. To their intensely joyful shock, it no longer seems impossible, just tricky. Over the course of the evening, they've been changed from stupified onlookers at some arcane artistic feat into increasingly deft players of a musical sport. Not that all differences are erased: The musicians who played the piece at the outset brought more rhythmic and harmonic complexity to it, and constructed more "complete" music. But the laypeople have their advantages too -- they're apt to bring in recognizable everyday sounds, whether the moooing of cows or a parent's scolding of a child, making it more like a dizzying variety of folk opera. And in any case as a non-spectator activity the underlying gravity of the piece has shifted, pulling it further to the "game" side (closer to, say, Twister) than to the "piece" side (nearer, perhaps, Ornette Coleman).

But as always with Glouberman the art is more along the path than at the destination: Whether or not it's created worthy new music, it creates worthy new musicians, and a shimmering sense that the boundary between music and non-music, artist and non-artist, is more pliable than it seemed when we walked through the door. "If we can do this together," it murmurs in the blood, "what else might we be able to do that we never suspected?"

The next arc in human events might begin with a hum. And now a hiss. And now it all rises. And now, converge.