Mary Oliver - solo violin
all compositions Mary Oliver
recorded april 20 2000 at Plantage Doklaan Amsterdam by Dick Lucas
cover by Han Bennink
It may surprise you to learn that along with Sun Ra, Mary Oliver’s travels in improvisation have taken her to the stars. Oliver’s important 1993 Ph.D. dissertation, “Constellations in Play,” challenges 150 years of canonical Western practice, in which improvisation is all but absent until the mid-1950’s, in a single brilliantly turned phrase: “As stars are made intelligible through being seen forming a constellation, so are the conditions of an improvisation organized by intuition to form its identity.”
Among the total of eighty-eight constellations that are “officially recognized” by those that claim authority in these matters, those visible to Mary Oliver’s parents on summer nights in San Diego are Lyra, the lyre of Orpheus; Cygnus, the swan; and Aquila, the eagle. In addition, if intuition tells us so, any group of stars can become part of a perceived pattern that astronomers call “asterisms”—such as the “Summer Triangle,” consisting of Vega, part of Lyra; Deneb, marking the tail of Cygnus; and Altair, the brightest point of Aquila.
Oliver’s training in Western art music has allowed her to bring the highest level of virtuosity and interpretation to the realization of some of the most difficult and complex notated scores ever produced. For some, however, her equally brilliant work as an improvisor sits uneasily with her expressed fealty to the Western tradition, especially given that tradition’s ambivalence—and even fear—concerning improvisation. This fear is often expressed as an attack on personal narrative, as with John Cage’s uncritical repetition of one of classical music’s hoariest clichés: “Improvisation is generally playing what you know and what you like and what you feel; but those feelings and likes are what Zen would like us to become free of.”
Given this lack of understanding among even the most progressive experimentalists, I am sure that Oliver showed great courage and perspicacity in maturing into a hybrid artist who refuses the improvisation-composition binary so beloved of high-art music. Ultimately, the freedom in free improvisation embraces history, memory, and the present moment, all at once, signaling an end to the binary-star tyrannies of spontaneity and archaeology.
Many theorists, including Oliver, have situated improvisation in models of childhood play. Building upon the work of philosopher Lydia Goehr, the Canadian improvisor and theorist Dana Reason points out how the nature of “play” in improvisation problematizes the Western concept of the autonomous, syntactically consistent musical “work”. For Reason, “improvisations are worked out, worked over, or worked on, but never finished in the Western classical sense.” Thus, the “work” becomes another constellation of play, subject to the contingencies of individual subjectivity.
Finally, if constellations are already subjectively constituted, then asterisms, the products of improvisitave intuition, constitute proof of agency: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Finding authority deep within ourselves, rather than in any mock-priestly interpretation of “what Zen wants,” we recognize improvisation as critical to our birthright as humans.
As Oliver declares, “The changing positions of various conditions and aspects of intuitive decisions, thereby determining the character of individual improvisations.” That is, where you came from is less important than where you are going. To all souls who wish to accompany her on her journey, all we need do is listen, as Mary Oliver comes home to herself, with infinite possibilities.
--Professor George E. Lewis.