A month or two ago I received an attractive little volume called Music for Citizens Band, Volume One. A citizens band, in this case, is simply a group that gets together to play music their own way. The booklet is only 48 pages long, but it contains about 40 specific scores and improvisation formats, along with numerous suggestions and ideas and references to other sources, and it’s about the best thing I’ve seen along this line since ‘Nature Study Notes’ was compiled by the Scratch Orchestra in London some years ago. It had been in the back of my mind that the volume warranted a review, and I had even written a rough outline. I would begin by giving a little history of musical anarchy and some of the free-form ensembles in the ’60s, drawing a few comparisons between jazz and classical approaches. Then I’d go on for a while about Will Parsons, the percussionist and composer who put this anthology together in San Diego, and who had 1979/young-composers-series-john-adams-michael-nyman-paul-dresher-ingram-marshalliously been quite active forming improvising ensembles in Iowa City. Then I’d talk a little about specific items included in Music for Citizens Band, and about the seven-inch record that comes with them. Somewhere along the line I’d try to stress that the kicks in free-form music are often greater for the performers than for the listeners, but that even when the experience is only meaningful for the performers, it’s still meaningful, and I’d end up by encouraging everyone to gather their friends together and form their own citizens bands.
However, the day I began threading these thoughts together also happened to be the day that some old friends were coming over for dinner, so another possibility immediately presented itself. Why not just wait until the right time, then show everyone the new booklet, suggest that we try some of the procedures suggested, and see what would happen? That way I could condense the basic facts and devote most of the space to reporting on a real-life attempt to form an impromptu citizens band.
That evening I broached the topic by simply passing the book around. Each of the other three browsed through the pages with some interest, and it looked as though the group was about to transform itself into an ad hoc citizens band. No one, however, wanted to suggest working on any particular score, and I didn’t want to organize things myself, so we were stuck until one member of the group offered this provocative observation. ‘The problem is that if you’re sympathetic with the philosophy of the book, as I think we all are, then you don’t have to rely on the scores in the book. You can make up your own score.’ With that the discussion became more animated and we soon decided to put together a piece ourselves, one that would summarize the events that had taken place that evening. It would begin with a bell sound, representing the ringing of the doorbell two or three hours earlier, and would proceed with some of the musical and verbal themes that had come up while we had been sitting around the dining table. One person found a washboard to play, another selected a whistle, another took down some bells, and I went to get a little bamboo flute. No one wanted to play the piano, which was probably just as well. The piano would have tended to dominate the other instruments, and this way everyone had a more or less equal chance.
Our improvisation went on for almost 15 minutes, and since we recorded the proceedings, I can tell you pretty accurately what happened. We stuck to our script at first, beginning with bells and a clattering of footsteps and washboard rhythms that represented the entrance of the guests. Then the flute introduced a theme and a whistle joined in, and eventually the bamboo flute, and all the time the bells continued softly in the background. Suddenly an alarm clock went off. This was completely accidental, but no one minded, and we absorbed that sound into the texture too. Later there were some more conventional musical moments when the flute and whistle would imitate one another quite closely, or when everyone would fall into the same tempo, or when someone would return to an earlier theme. At one point someone trickled beer on the floor, which was a private reference that I didn’t understand. After a while there was some chanting and singing on the subjects of Sunday school, Spinoza, Playboy, various colleges, and ‘pull my finger,’ which were private references that I did understand, although they wouldn’t have meant much to someone who hadn’t heard the conversation earlier that evening. The tape proved quite revealing, because I could spot certain points when I had been so self-involved that I had failed to listen to others, and other points when the preoccupations of my friends had shown through. In short, it was a pretty good jam session as far as we were concerned. Even without the benefit of virtuoso solos, the music sounded fine. All four players played more or less equal roles. And there was some good group communication on a level that hadn’t been possible around the dinner table.
But were we a typical citizens band? And did our response to the booklet really live up to Parson’s expectations when he compiled it? Certainly the purely musical results would have been better if we had rehearsed the score of Chris Kearney’s ‘Fortress,’ a unique setting of ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ which looks fairly easy in its short page of instructions and sounds wonderful on the accompanying record. We could have kept a tighter formal grasp on what we were doing if we had followed Parson’s own ‘Quartet Possibilities’ or Jon English’s ‘Sequent Cycles.’ Certainly the procedures suggested in the contributions of Pauline Oliveros or Kenneth Gaburo would have taken us to more profound individual depths. Still, in another way, our own solution went right to the heart of what this anthology is all about. ‘The ‘best’ compositions for any Citizen’s Band will be written by the members themselves,’ says Parsons in his introduction. Of course, Parsons would want us to go on from here, to be self-critical, to rise above our present limitations, and to work toward music that would be of public as well as private interest. Maybe we will. At least we got started, and I hope other citizens bands will also get started as a result of this useful little volume.