Many anticipate chaos at the very idea of group improvisation but listening—and watching—will quickly dispel this notion. This is not a free-for-all, but the production of highly refined musicianship as execution and listening both. Chaos would result from simultaneous exertion of ego, each performer closed to what is going on around him and determined to make his own point.
Clearly, these musicians aren't in competition with one another but in cooperation. They respond to the sound environment rhythmically and tonally, and they participate in the creation of atmospheres and impulses that will create a whole. They trade places in the composition, moving as the music develops between foreground and background, sometimes supporting with underlying chords or rhythmic punctuations, at other times asserting themselves with outbursts or long lyric lines. All this is executed so fluently that it is often difficult to distinguish voices so protean that they are often unrecognizable from their orchestral exemplars.
|Eric Mandat (courtesy of Rex Gaskins)|
The point is not the individual voices, but the experience of a developing composition. Consider the breadth of sounds lavished on the ear and their disposition vis-a-vis one another. These combinations of sound, new to listeners, are new to the performers creating them in the moment. This music occurs because the musicians have made it a practice for over thirty-five years to override deeply-rooted Western musical rules and to free instincts about how to use their instruments—their voices—and what music is in the first place. The Ramblers' conclusion that freedom disconcerts audiences trained to believe that constraints—structure, form and fixed relationships—define music.
But works of art, however they are created, must have limits and feel whole. Performances and compositions, once begun, convince listeners that they've not only stopped but concluded. Ramblers performances will never end with the resolutions of nineteenth-century symphonies, our beloved standard for The End. The frequently-asked question to the Ramblers, "How do you know when it's over?" is not only legitimate, but of great concern to audience members asked to suspend most of their musical information to listen in the first place.
As with making the music, the decision to conclude a piece is a group decision. Like all their decisions at every point, it could go any number of ways and it depends on what they are collectively and individually hearing. When they hear the possibility of completion, there is no necessity of doing so. If some one or two have more to say, the music will continue, refreshed. But when it ends, it ends with a conclusion—but it's one of countless possibilities in the continuum of sound and silence from which improvised music is made.