LISTENING FOR community through music


About a year before her 2016 residency with Nameless Sound, I first heard Maggie Nicols sing on a record called Voice. At the time I was searching for something like an improvised choral music, a music as removed as possible from the neo-Romantic program I’d been trained in as a choral singer. Listening to Voice—particularly the pieces attributed to Nicols—was a revelation. The ensemble, comprised of Phil Minton, Julie Tippetts, Brian Eley, and Nicols, sang a music that was thoroughly composed, but by the voice rather than for the voice.

One piece that struck me in particular, Nicols’ “Ego Worry,” is a slow delamination, a fracturing of a seemingly familiar modernist choral texture into the granular, anxious sounds of four singular bodies. Altogether, the album pointed to a vocal music in which a singer could be disciplined and economical in their gestures without sacrificing the wholly informal, affective, and anatomical sounds always immanent in our bodies.

So, when I found out some months later that Nicols would be joining Nameless Sound for an intensive residency with the Artist-Facilitator team, I was more than eager to watch and listen to her work. As a Nameless Sound Facilitator I would have the opportunity to observe and participate in a series of workshops that Maggie would facilitate. Founding Director David Dove and Education Coordinator Jason Jackson had both worked with Nicols once before, and they spoke almost reverentially of a workshop she had facilitated with a large group of high school students with disabilities. Her warmth, sensitivity, and “magic,” especially in working with students who were ostensibly voiceless, had left a lasting impression on them. This longer-term residency would be both an opportunity for people from a range of communities across Houston to work with Nicols directly in workshop as Nameless Sound’s team of Facilitators supported and learned from her, with particular emphasis on her approach to making music with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The five workshops that I participated in with Nicols, which ranged from a rollicking hour or so with a group of four and five year-olds to a meditative spell with a group of adult improvisors from across Houston, simultaneously gave the feeling of being freely improvised even as they were deeply rooted in a pedagogical repertory. In the Facilitator team’s casual debriefings with Maggie it became clear that the bulk of the pieces and exercises she was drawing on come from the work of John Stevens with whom she worked in and around the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in the late 1960s. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach to these pieces, however, she sewed them like seeds, tending to the resultant organic, embodied proliferation with a nurturing curiosity.

The first of Nicols’ workshops that I sat in on was with the Nite Owls, a social club for adults with disabilities that has been meeting at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston since 1964. Nicols began the music-making with one of Stevens’ introductory pieces called “Click Piece,” which asks each participant to find the shortest sound they can possibly make. Using this deceptively simple premise, Nicols co-created with what was a large and gregarious group a rather beautiful and concentrated piece of music. More than that, she turned “Click Piece” as a way into the voice that singing scales or a well-known song could never offer. As each participant explored their own click, questions of pitch, timbre, and rhythm were replaced with the barer questions of breath and duration. Then as the music started and clicks began to unintentionally constellate, Nicols’ maxim, “If you can breathe you can sing,” bore itself out. That joking question she asked at the beginning of the session, “Everyone here can breathe, right?” became the affirmation: “Everyone here is singing.”

Of course, it is one thing to read and play a piece like Stevens’ “Click” with its linear and detailed set of instructions, and quite another to turn it into a performance like Nicols gave that night for and with the Nite Owls. Her instructions always seemed to be a response to a question in the room. She gave them directly and simply while always implying a preexisting and mutual knowingness about the material at hand. When things turned toward freer kinds of improvisation her voice was always gently present, carving out space for another voice, reinforcing a daring idea or soothing a plaintive sound.

This sort of gestural, nearly ineffable facilitation became even more vital with groups that weren’t as intimate or readily self-regulating as the Nite Owls. In our visit to Johnston Middle School, for instance, where several Nameless Sound facilitators joined Nicols in a workshop with a large group of students in their Special Education program, Nicols moved more quickly into extended group improvisations, using a kind of rapid-fire call and response form. Participants were asked to respond with sound as soon as they heard Nicols’ voice, creating gorgeous swells of texture that—due in large part to the affective precision of Maggie’s seed sounds—were richly varied and highly focused. In the careful economy of her vocal gestures, by placing and never throwing her voice, Nicols offered something like a very large and pliable vessel that could safely accommodate the full range of exuberant sound each student in the circle wanted to offer.

Maggie spent nearly the entire hour at Johnston (and long stretches of other workshops she facilitated) with her eyes closed. This simple gesture was–for me–the clearest way she performed her anarchical faith in collective self-regulation. By relinquishing her gaze, which might otherwise figure her as an agent of surveillance, Nicols grants those gathered about her permission to question the whole regime of permissions that structures institutionalized learning. She invited us to attend to many sounds, many movements, and many ideas at will, and to respond (or not) without fear of being disciplined or redirected.

While in workshop with a smaller group of high school students in Harris County’s Academic and Behavior School East program, I experienced first-hand the depth of her commitment to this dynamic process of making space for the broadest possible range of expression. The group, which at first was palpably depressed, had gradually begun to engage in some music-making. Maggie took a very gentle approach, inviting a few participants to receive sound baths. They lay down on a mat in the center of the circle and all the other participants directed gentle, long tones in their direction—an extremely tender exercise that seemed to emotionally buoy the whole group. The music then evolved into a freer improvisation and one participant who had not made many audible sounds let out a big, long tone, which I chose to respond to with a big sound of my own. He turned to me, stood up, and moved quickly in my direction. I was surprised but didn’t feel particularly threatened. However, the two men who had been monitoring things began angling to intercept the student who had by that time reached me and begun biting my shoulder. I wasn’t in any pain and I did my best to comfort the student as he was pulled away from the circle, feeling guilty for my hamfisted response to his entry into the music. I quickly reverted to the kind of learned helplessness that I’d been brought up on when it comes to institutional process, and soon was led sheepishly away to the nurse’s office. Maggie, however, was working to keep her group together. She was making music, listening deeply to all the others in the circle, even as she was advocating for the student being taken away. She was asking them to let him remain in the circle.

Near the end of her residency, Nicols gave a concert with a group of Houston-based women improvisors: a solo, a duet with Ivette Román-Roberto, and then a septet with Keisha Cassel, Sandy Ewen, Sonia Flores, Emily Nelson, and Rebecca Novak. The evening was full of tender music, charming music, hilarious music even, music that dared not take itself too seriously--even in a space as freighted with seriousness as the Menil Collection’s Richmond Hall. And yet, in the wake of all the merriment Maggie had made with her new collaborators that night, when the full ensemble was well into their performance, a very serious rendition of John Stevens’ “Sustain Piece” began with a single, very intentional long tone. This piece, the companion to “Click,” asks for all performers to make sustained, breath-length sounds. It tends to create undulating harmonic textures that can become quite beautiful. Yet this rendering of “Sustain” emerged into a clearing, an affectively opened space left in the wake of so much whimsy and joy. And in that space, Stevens’ simple, repetitive process produced harmonies so crystalline and exquisite that I found myself quite in tears. Maggie’s clear, unencumbered singing was audible throughout, but yet again this moment was of her but not about her. It was her capacity to create space for the emotional and creative work of others, her ability to teach without ever becoming teacherly, that enabled and empowered such moving music.

While “threatening” wouldn’t be among the first words that come to mind to describe Maggie Nicols, I do think that the ineffable opening up of time and space that seems to accompany her and her music has a queer kind of menace about it. Making a music that emanates from free bodies and a joyful mutuality of spirit, that defies its place in curricular or institutional logic, isn’t this always a kind of wordless threat to hegemony? Maybe the “magic” that Maggie brings to her music and her social work is her ability to conjure this threat out of the gentlest sound, from jokes and play, and then to invite others to live for a time in the safety that threat affords.

However one explains their power, and even as they struggle to hold all those who need to be held, it is my great hope that spaces like the ones Maggie fosters become more commonplace in our homes, schools, and workplaces in years to come, and that organizations like Nameless Sound continue to work at the leading edge of this effort, making what are the so-often-obvious yet unmade connections between free musics and free people. – JUSTIN JONES


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