Maggie Nicols

Vocalist Maggie Nicols is one of the relatively few women to have dedicated themselves to free improvisation in the 1970s and 1980s. For a number a years she was heavily involved in the Workers Revolutionary Party and is now active in Anarchist groups. Such political involvements feed freely into her music and her understanding of improvisation as well as her experiences with John Stevens and Trevor Watts as a member of The Spontaneous Music Ensemble. She was later a member of The Feminist Improvising Group (FIG). One improvisation workshop led by Maggie that I attended developed into a mixture of music workshop, Anarchist forum and encounter group in which any participant could contribute just about any idea about anything taking any form. We spoke in her London flat on 23rd January 1990, her conversation changed direction frequently, interspersed with laughing, singing, movements and gesticulations.

I suppose I was attracted to jazz for emotional reasons, it was all very much to with being young and female and very emotional. In the ’60s I worked as a dancer at the Windmill Theatre in Soho and my flat mate was going out with a jazz drummer so I pretended to like jazz because I wanted to impress her… really! Then I saw The Glenn Miller Story and got a crush on James Stewart, it was all silly things like that, very romanticized, a young woman really searching for stuff. And then I started going down Ronnie Scott’s, someone took me down there. At first I got into it just through how the people were, I’d get some sort of feeling about a person playing an instrument. Of course it was all men in those days, and through that person I would pick up on an emotional thing, as well as social things of course, like whether they had an alcohol problem or not! Funnily enough on a higher or deeper level and with much more political understanding I still think so much of what music is about what the person is expressing personally and socially today.

I was very insecure around musicians, I mean I was very ignored and dismissed; I suppose they thought I was a typical young chick hanging about. Women were very invisible unless they were actually working or wives or whatever. But one night I was down Ronnie’s watching the Mike Westbrook band and I heard this voice inside, wanting to sing out. I went up to the Little Theatre Club in ’67 and saw John Stevens, and I think Norma Winstone, Derek Bailey and Trevor Watts and I remember just getting blown away by it all. I thought, ‘this is amazing! How do they do it?’ I just knew it sounded amazing but I didn’t know what it was. In the end I was so filled with desire that I had to talk to John, even though I was scared shitless because I didn’t know him. He was quite vague, he said, ‘Oh, some other time,’ but then I bumped into Trevor Watts and he said, ‘why don’t you come up this weekend?’ And up till then I’d been singing in a strip club, the Venus Room at Old Compton Street, so I thought, ‘WooaaAHH!’, because I’d never done free improvisation. But I got to the club and John just set a piece, which I still use in workshops to this day, the Sustain piece. John was playing a gong and Trevor was playing this lovely note on the sax and all I had to do was just sing one note, which was all shaky and cracked with nerves at first, but after a while I just began to hear all the things around me and it just took off into the most beautiful free improvisation. It was a complete revelation; I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. I was still singing in the strip club and I had to get back to it and it was pouring with rain outside but I was jumping up and down and singing…

I stayed with John and Trevor and we did the Spontaneous Music Ensemble album Oliv with Johnny Dyani and we also did the first Total Music Meeting in Berlin in ’68. We were all put up in this youth hostel in camp beds, cold stone floors and no beds, but to me it was like a dream because I was so used to these musicians treating me like some sort of groupie, you know like nothing really. Then suddenly to be in the company of all these musicians and to be actually talking about music and I was actually singing, not just a hanger on, it was extraordinary and I took to it like a duck to water. To me improvising was as natural as breathing; it felt so organic and natural…

I became interested in improvising in drama and movement as well. I remember one gig I was doing, this must be about 1971, when the music really wasn’t happening but at that time I lacked the discipline to just stop and be silent for a while. And it felt so dishonest that at one point I just felt myself compulsively doing a movement and all of a sudden, I couldn’t believe it, but out of my mouth came this voice, ‘I’m lying, I’m LYING!’ and I started dancing because it was the only way I could escape, because of course I’d been a dancer, but I’d never thought of connecting it. So through a really frustrating block and unconsciously verbally owning up to that block something new and positive came out and that’s something I’ve actually developed and worked with over the years – being that honest, talking, demystifying, baring it all. But I left it for a while because I found very few musicians that I could do that with, a lot of people found that a bit much, they didn’t like it. A lot of people are doing that now but when I first started doing that I was very isolated.

The way I’ve kept in touch with all that is through workshops, which I’ve been doing for twenty years now, and they’ve been where I’ve learnt. I’ve worked with people that go, ‘I can’t sing, I can’t sing,’ and you go,’Oh, that’s no problem, no problem,’ and then after a couple of hours they’re singing! And I’ve sometimes been in workshops and thought, ‘Oh, I don’t believe the creative power in this situation, oh this is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard on a stage, more so,’ and that reinforced what John had always said about it, about the social dynamics and social interaction.

Getting accepted by musicians was, for a woman singer, quite rare, and for a while I was special; it was like being one of the boys. But then to go into a workshop situation and coming face to face with the creativity of whole groups of people was quite an adjustment. But I’m glad I did that and have come down to earth and have a social base. Having that as a base I can’t help but acknowledge everybody’s creativity. I have to just because I experienced so many amazing, beautiful things in workshops, It’s my laboratory, the workshops are primary for me I think.

I went through a period when I didn’t actually do much improvisation, I was singing in rock bands and stuff, and it was actually the Women’s Liberation movement that got me back into it, this was around 1976 or ’77. I thought, ‘I’ve had all these intimate musical experiences with men, and here I am discovering this shared political experience with other women, what would it be like to work with other women?’ Now I’d worked with Julie Tippetts and we knew we had a very special rapport but I’d never actually worked with a whole group of women, so I approached Lindsay Cooper and there was a series called Music For Socialism so we played that as the Feminist Improvising Group. We were worried that it might all come over a bit like Socialist Realism, you know, ‘What is a Feminist Note?’ But in the end what happened was that the Feminist content was more in what we said, in the theatre. The actual interaction between the women was based on our Feminist understanding of our lives. We didn’t rehearse or anything, and out of that came very personal things about problems we were all having, like I had a lot of problems with being a mother, and Georgie Born was worried about her weight and Lindsay had all this anger about going through classical instrumental training, so we just started from that. And it just blew people away, that gig was a turning point for a lot of improvisers who were there, even though they probably wouldn’t give us the credit for it. I mean it wasn’t a particularly slick gig, but we brought politics into it in a very raw way; at one point Lindsay was chopping up onions and I was rushing around spraying perfume around so the audience wouldn’t have to smell the onions, it was completely mad. We started up by mopping up after Paul Burwell who’d been using water in his performance, it wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t fair really but we set him up. ‘Don’t worry Paul, we’ll clear up after you,’ it was just an extraordinary gig and for me it was like a release of all these things I’d discovered but had never felt I could express. But a lot of people didn’t like it at all, because at that time it was all very precious and the LMC was divided up into these competitive ‘schools of improvising’. But I don’t think those differences mean we have to be competitive, I think it’s fascinating that there’s such a range of different groups and human beings involved in the music, that diversity is its strength.

I don’t want to fetishise women, because there are many differences that divide women; race differences, class differences, all sorts of differences, but there was a physical intimacy between us in FIG which I found very liberating, which is very rare amongst male musicians. Also we felt as though we were liberating ourselves from the idea that we felt we had to be approved of by men. Though, gradually the women who were in (the rock band) Henry Cow started worrying about what the men in Henry Cow thought and I started worrying about what the jazz musicians thought and that was really a very undermining process. What was really exciting for me was that here was a group of women who had very different technical abilities and for whom technique was not the criteria, which it still is today for a number of improvisers. They tend to measure the success of an improvisation by instrumental ability, but with FIG we were improvising our lives in a way, not just our personal lives but a particular period of history.

The big Women’s festivals and socialist festivals in Italy also gave us the chance to play in front of a much wider audience, many of whom had never heard improvisation before and that gave me a real confidence in this music’s accessibility, it speaks to people. It speaks to people’s desire for some sort of autonomy or creativity or social connections that aren’t preconceived. People loved the fact that it was becoming as they were there, that they were part of something unfolding that hadn’t actually been prepared in advance, and that they were affecting us. It’s such a powerful music because when people are alone they make some of the sounds we make and we all improvise every day of our lives. Each improviser is dealing with the new, with each moment as it happens, but as we are not just born new every moment. I mean I carry with me my experiences, fears and prejudices, love, desire, background, family, musical influences, politics, you name it. For me it’s an incredible dialectic of new and old. You are open to what is coming in, the environment, the audience, the other musicians and at the same time you are somehow carrying with you everything that has ever happened.

Improvisation for me is really the way of working that can do that and there is a political significance to practicing it. If we were able to react when something new or unexpected happens, to sharpen our instincts and instinctively feel what is right in a given situation regardless of what we have planned, then we could avoid the panic and chaos. If you practice improvising you are potentially ready for almost anything, though obviously the amount of preparation you have to do for a gig is not comparable with what you would have to do for a street demonstration or revolution!

I mean I love music and I love composing but my passion is improvisation, I’m madly in love with it! I am! I see it as dialectical music.

When I was in the WRP, before I got involved with the Anarchist movement, I learnt a lot about the philosophy of dialectics and contradiction. How did I join? Well, my ex-husband was an ex-member of the SWP and he used to rave on about it. But I wasn’t interested; I didn’t want to know about parties or anything like that. But when we split up I met some people from Equity who were trying to stop Equity registering under the Industrial Relations act. So I went on the lobby and to a couple of Socialist Labour League classes that Gerry Healey was giving on philosophy. At that time I still believed in God and I felt that it was an attack on me, because of course they were strongly atheist. So it was very painful, but at the same time they were coming out with all this stuff about interaction and nature that I just knew intuitively I had always felt, only they were putting it in a more scientific way I suppose. Then they asked me to sing at something, and somehow I ended up joining, that’s how they hook you in, a nice big audience and everything, ha ha! I was in the Party for about five years and I learnt an enormous amount, I wrote some of my best songs and I was exposed to the practice of dialectical materialism, which demystified has just made such a difference to how I actually perceive and practice music, friendships and so on. And although they trained us to the view that dialectical materialism outside the democratic centralist revolutionary party is actually a waste of time, to me it’s blossoming all over the place, even in the laws of opposites I find in my body, or dialectics in the history of jazz; how Charlie Parker’s negation of Lester Young’s style actually fully preserved that style, by negating you lose nothing, you preserve in a different form. That was so exciting and that connection between history and being open enough to take in what’s happening as it’s happening is also what I love about improvisation. It’s what Engels calls the Science of Universal Connection, it’s very simple really, but its been mystified, a lot of academic Marxists make it into something very obscure.
Going into the Women’s Liberation Movement at first seemed very incompatible carrying with the training the Party had given me. But by sharpening the differences certain connections became clearer, and that’s another dialectical concept, Hegel’s ‘sharpening the blunt difference of variety to the point of opposition’. Like in improvisation you can get people from Salsa, classical, rock, jazz or folk music coming together and while they go beyond their traditions the result also reflects what they have learnt from those different backgrounds. It’s not a matter of fudging or fusing the brilliant differences, but seeing the links between them. So what I learnt in the Party I’ve taken right into the music. And I’ve also learnt so much from the anarchist movement. I left the WRP because I’d felt attracted to women from the age of about sixteen and I remember at a branch meeting somebody saying that a lesbian or homosexual could only be a sympathizer, because they would somehow be open to blackmail from the state and they’d be a security risk! Somehow I couldn’t really argue against that, I was scared of the leadership, I couldn’t really confront things. Then I was instructed to stay in London when I had a gig in Holland, but I breached Revolutionary Discipline and I went. Then it was one of those situations where you take the phone off the hook and just don’t answer the door. I basically ran away. I would get all these newspapers that I was supposed to deliver and one day I just got one and that was that.

I have to say that today when I meet someone who’s too ideologically sussed out I get scared. I mean, I’ve been on the other side of it so I know what its like; I used to go steaming in like a missionary, people used to go out of their way to avoid me!

Now I want to actually find creative ways of being in a political group. I want to find people who are interested in combining workshops with discussion so meetings don’t just decide what we’re going to do but how are we going to do it and how are we with each other, even areas that the Women’s Liberation movement call ‘consciousness raising’.

RS: So you’re interested in taking apart the separate dialogues surrounding music, political action, theory and therapy and somehow putting them together?

MN: Yes, desperately! Desperately, desperately, desperately… desperately! Ha ha! Really, really, really, really. I just feel that there is so much potential in that. We all have such a rich range of experiences to share. There has got to be a way of weaving it all in, I’m sure there is, I’m sure there is. Because we’re all interconnected and we have to start exploring that. And it’s limitless, and improvisation is limitless, as long as the world carries on there is no end to improvisation, because there’s always something new… Every day… Every moment… Yeah…

(23rd January 1990.)

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