Brian Lavelle | Scottish writer & musician

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra & Maggie Nicols, Edinburgh, 9 July 2024

Here are some reflections on last night's performance by Maggie Nicols and the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra at the Reid Concert Hall in Edinburgh.

This was a free concert (in more ways than one) thanks to the generosity of the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh, and was a truly glorious affair. Earlier in the year, the school put on a fantastic performance by Re-Ghoster Extended on a stormy evening in January. Last night's showing by the GIO displayed the full gamut of weather conditions under one roof, even if the Edinburgh skies outside were only ominous with smirr.

I am very fond of Maggie's work and that of the GIO so I couldn't miss this performance, despite the rain. What we got was captivating, playful, surprising, brimful of real warmth, participatory, appropriately spiky, but more than anything just absolutely joyful and inclusive: improvised music working for the good of the human soul and condition.

The core of the GIO was joined by teaching and student members of the Reid School of Music. A number of different pieces were on offer: some being properly the result of free improvisation and some more ordered, but still improvisatory, pieces, with homage at one point to John Stevens' approach to composition and improvisation. The whole things ebbed and flowed like an unstoppable tide, calm in places and at others alive with white horses racing for the shore. Raymond MacDonald and Una MacGlone gave lovely, insightful introductions to the various sections. What was clear throughout was the love and respect which the GIO has for Maggie, as a friend and a mentor, and for their shared work together over the last couple of decades

It was beguiling, from my perspective as an audience member, to see the performers at times lost in the moment of the music, a demonstration of that power which improvised music has to surprise and bewitch when the stars and "notes" align. None of it is pre-ordained and none of it can be orchestrated to produce that effect on demand. To see a musician pause, remain silent, and take the time to reflect and listen is so beautiful, and that seems to me to be a necessary fundament of free improvisation. The collaborative/communitarian approach—call it what you will—is one of the delights of the music, both in the hearing but especially in the making. On evidence so much of the time was that important sense of space which the best improvised performances have: some participants dropping out of focus, stopping playing altogether, and reinforcing the notion that sometimes the most important notes are those which you don't play.

Anyway, what an absolute joy to have the chance to witness this kind of music being created, and in such a sympathetic space. Onwards to the next GIO festival, which should be in November this year!

And congratulations, too, to Maggie on her honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, for her career—her life, really—in music, a live full and well-lived.

I wrote this short poem for the soon-to-be Dr. Nicols on returning home last night, alive with the wonderment of how moving the show had been:

for Maggie Nicols

o! to hear Maggie
talk tonight

sing sign
signs of life
sing of light


tocsins everywhere!

#Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra #Maggie Nicols #free improvisation #improvised music