Looking down on the Chapel Performance Space at Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center from the rafters.
photo/David Verkade

   Looking down on the Chapel Performance Space at Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center from the rafters.

photo/David Verkade

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival (SIMF) runs from Wednesday, Feb. 8, through Feb. 11 at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, but you can get a head start on it by attending the SIMF benefit, “One Minute Solos,” on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Curated by composer/bassist John Teske, the program is a sampling of improvising musicians from Seattle’s different communities.

“Improv is a broad term,” Teske explained, “with a wide range of styles and backgrounds.” 

Although the lineup had not been made final at press time, Teske promises that more than two dozen of the city’s most notable and adventurous improvisers will perform solo pieces of one-minute durations. 

Teske, who will perform in different configurations on Wednesday and Thursday, describes his own musical pursuit as a search for focus. 

“I will reduce everything to one sound, focus on that sound until it begins to decay, then await the necessity to make a new sound,” he said. 

That might sound esoteric, but it is simply a description of the creative act of composition, only slowed down to the point where each creative decision is an inevitable event. 

“The process of going from note to note is not as interesting to me as the quality of the sound,” he admitted.


Timing, form essential

In choosing the lineup of musicians, this year’s festival’s director Tyler Wilcox, a past curator, looked for a natural and subtle sense of timing and a sense of heightened awareness, along with an emphasis on form that merges through collaboration, which is also a strong focus in his own improvising and composing. 

“This year, I’m trying to show the rich diversity of the Pacific Northwest’s improvised-music scene. Due to the climate, there is a more contemplative feel to the music. There is a reverence for nature and its processes, and that seeps into the music. And water permeates everything. It tends to be a little slower than in other places. Here, we are further away from Europe, so we don’t have the heavy hand of history upon us as on the East Coast,” he explained.

One Seattle improviser who is not impeded by this heavy hand of history is Beacon Hill saxophonist Wilson Shook, who approaches such influences in a more personal and often less linear way than someone coming out of or perpetuating a specific lineage. 

Shook came upon the improv scene eight years ago, with no formal training on his instrument and little desire to learn conventional modes. Unlike many of his peers, he does not seek out recordings of other improvisers, as much of his enjoyment of improvisation comes out of its immediacy, and he said the experience of immediacy translates well to the recording medium. 

Shook, a principal facilitator for the Central Area’s Gallery 1412, will perform there on Saturday, Feb. 4, in advance of his festival appearances. 

“I know that I will be practicing in advance, but I don’t have any plans for what I am going to play,” Shook said. “Some of the people I will be playing with I have never even met, and [I] don’t expect to until the festival. Of those I have played with before, I have some expectation of what the vibration is going to be, but [I] don’t know exactly what we will play.” 

For Shook, as with many others, there is more to playing this kind of music than meets the eye. 

“It is about more than music for me,” he explained. “You can do lots of things in an improvisational way. The more you do that, the greater your imaginative capacity. I think of it not only as an artistic practice but as a life practice.”


Deeper meaning

Many times, the music itself goes beyond music. Take, for example, the Seattle Phonographer’s Union, which collectively improvises with field recordings. Its sound spectrum goes beyond any sequence of notes to include the accidental harmonies and counterpoints of nature. 

Its performance will be dedicated to Rolf Julius, who passed away Jan. 21. Julius, who studied fine art in Bremen, Germany, began using sound alongside his visual practice in the mid-1970s. Later, he moved to Berlin, where he participated in 1980s Für Augen Und Ohren, one of Europe’s first major sound-art exhibitions. 

Over the course of a 30-year career, Julius’s performances and low-volume sonic sculptures and installations developed an approach that became highly influential on a younger generation of sound artists.

Another aspect of improvisational music that is coming to the fore this year is the resurgence of ambient and cosmic analog synthesizer music. 

“That has come back in full force with the younger generation here,” Wilcox enthused. “Matt Carlson and Jason Anderson are working with that in a fully embodied way. Also, pianist Gust Burns and I have had a duo through which we have been exploring silence as a structural parameter for the last three years.”


The perfect venue

The festival is now in its 27th year, with a long history of directors, venues and participants. This is the fifth year of its residency at the Good Shepherd Chapel, which has become, along with Gallery 1412, a valued cornerstone for Seattle’s adventurous music community. 

“I want to stress that the Chapel is the best venue for contemporary improvisation in the United States,” Wilcox said. ”Music, at its best, exists in the place it is being performed in. The room is the unseen collaborator in every aspect of the music. It sounds beautiful, looks beautiful, it feels beautiful. It changes the way people play.” 

The suggested donation for the fund-raiser is $10 to $25, with $25 getting you a pass for the whole festival. For more information, visit seattleimprovisedmusic.us.

BILL WHITE can be reached at bwhi51@yahoo.com.