MAGGIE NICOLS AND NAMELESS SOUND

In our service, users and carer’s Wales Mental Health and Well Being forum and in the wider mental health community, there is a term that comes up again and again as something of vital importance for mental health and all round well-being, and that is ‘meaningful activities.’    

Even people who disagree over whether a medical, trauma informed and/or social model is preferable in the treatment of mental health challenges, all agree that when we do what we enjoy and what is meaningful for us, we are far more likely to feel good about ourselves and our lives. When we do that in community with others it heals and nourishes our communities as well as our own lives.

Nameless Sound is an organisation that puts sharing meaningful musical activities with a wide range of people at the heart of everything it does.

I was honoured and thrilled to be asked all the way to Houston to share some of my teaching practices with them. 

I have worked as a community musician since 1969 when I ran my first workshops at Oval House a radical community arts centre in South London.   

I had already served an apprenticeship with John Stevens and Trevor Watts in John’s ‘Spontaneous Music Ensemble’ throughout 1968. John’s philosophy of inclusive collective improvisation had a profound impact on me and I was ready, in spite of nervousness to run the workshops.   

Peter and Joan Oliver transformed The Oval House from what was a Church of England youth club into a centre for radical Fringe Theatre. They kept most of the local youth totally engaged in the activities.   

They also believed, like John, that everybody is creative and capable. My ex-husband needed somewhere to rehearse his band and running workshops was the exchange. They had total trust that one of us would be able to do it.   

From both SME and Oval House, I learnt about varied ability excellence. (Thanks to Rachel Stelmach of Disability Arts Wales for that alternative to ‘mixed ability’) When we believe in the innate creative abilities in everybody, magic happens which is equal to anything produced by trained professionals. I had no specialist training but the SME and Oval House emphasis on inclusivity and community meant that when my friend trumpeter Dave DeFries who worked in a residential home for people with learning disabilities, brought many of them in a mini bus to the workshops, I did not hesitate or stop to think if I was qualified.They quickly became a regular part of our diverse musical community. Love, respect, and solidarity with all co-creates community excellence.    

The schedule on my first visit in 2009 with Nameless Sound, was intense, thrilling and rewarding although I unfortunately picked up a flu virus by the end of the week. I didn’t have my peppermint, elderflower, and yarrow cold and flu tea so had to take conventional drugs in order to perform with Susan Alcorn and Fred Frith on my last night. While watching the footage that David Dove sent for permission to include for this archive, I was pleasantly surprised at what a lovely concert it was in spite of me being under the weather. They are both such great, inventive and inspiring musicians.   

I loved the whole time in Houston. I would have loved to stay longer but as a carer, I couldn’t be away too long which is why so much had to be fitted into a relatively short time frame. Some days we would visit one place in the morning, another in the afternoon and then every evening, I worked with the Nameless Sound Ensemble which David gathered together. What a fantastic ensemble that was. They were really open to everything I offered and had ideas of their own too which is always great. We had a lot of fun as well as making some deep and interesting music together. By the end of the week, I was ill and lying miserably on a couch for the recording of the ensemble. However, I have wonderful memories of those evening sessions.    

I enjoyed each group, however there were especially memorable encounters.   

In one high school, we ran a workshop in the ‘special needs’ building. The teacher I’ve since found out from David used to be an audience member for Nameless Sound events. This partly explains why he was so open to exploring intuitive sounds as opposed to more conventional sing-alongs. He was not afraid to completely surrender and risk being laughed at, albeit affectionately by his class. He threw himself with such enthusiasm into all the exercises I presented that his class who obviously loved him had active encouragement and no resistance from a teacher as a barrier to free expression. They were wonderful and some brilliant collective improvisation ensued. The other part of the explanation for his huge contribution, I feel was his total commitment to and honouring of the students with learning differences in his care. ‘This is the best unit in the school’, he announced proudly and it was obvious to them and us that he meant it.

Sometimes in workshops, a large part of the work is reassuring staff that it’s safe and not ‘uncool’ to improvise. They can either be quite anxious and defensive or over zealously helpful; picking up a reluctant hand and making someone beat a drum without checking that that is what is wanted by that person. 

We can never underestimate how much permission we need to open and freely express ourselves. We have a lot of socialisation to overcome before we let our defenses down.  If we do this in unsafe spaces, it can lead to being seen as weird or even mad/mentally ill, and without solidarity and kindred spirits, it could lead to social isolation or even forcible admission to psychiatric institutions.   

I feel that the practices of freedom I am sharing are in some part about finding safe ways to go into altered states and experience joy and even bliss in non-competitive company. We can surrender to sound and become close to complete strangers without losing our autonomy or sanity and we can have a lot of fun doing it.   

We are all equals with different experiences and levels of confidence and we can never assume what those are in each person. Thus, for me, co creating safe and inspiring environments and supportive group dynamics is the most important thing. Then literally anything can happen. As someone who has experienced chronic anxiety, especially in groups, I have suffered from being on the receiving end of teaching-based on competition, and flourished where facilitation has focused on building up trust in the group, like in the wonderful drama groups I was part of at The Oval House and singing with John and Trevor in SME. This is why I teach the way I do.   

Another wonderful memory from my first visit with Nameless sound was in another high school, again with teenagers with learning differences. In the morning we interacted with some uninhibited participants who loved making strong sounds, and quite a lot of dancing and raucous laughter occurred as well. Straight after that session, we entered a room in which everybody apart from staff was in wheel chairs and seemingly quite withdrawn, only small sounds emerging from some of them. There was no way we could approach this session in the same way.  


In the moment, I could only intuit what I’d never risked before, even in workshops I had run in the past with people with physical disabilities. I suggested we sit in silence, no exercises or games, and just be with the profound energy in the room and respond authentically to the small sounds we heard. Anything else would have felt intrusive. Although this is more like what happens in the non-workshop happening ‘The Gathering’, which I write about later, to not direct anything when you have been asked to attend as a facilitator, felt quite scary. We sat, we felt, we listened, we intuited and we responded. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I felt deeply connected to everybody there through sound, the great equaliser whatever our circumstances. Even if only temporarily, all hierarchy between able-bodied and disabled musicians dissolved. We followed their sounds, not in some kind of clumsy imitation but in musical solidarity. It became reciprocal, as they in turn responded to us. Wow! We got very welcome and constructive feedback from staff members afterwards. They were surprised and moved by what happened as were we.    

In most workshop settings I offer many of the same simple, starting point springboards to improvisation no matter who I am working with because they profoundly enhance the improvisational experience. I sometimes name this approach ‘The Challenge Of Simplicity.’ How I present them varies according to the energy in the room and /or how open or resistant people might appear. It isn’t always the experienced musicians or improvisers who understand the power of simplicity. There is one piece by drummer/percussionist John Stevens called “Click Piece.” It features in the sound archives from the pre-Gathering workshop I did in 2016. Everybody makes the shortest sound they can manage near the end of each exhalation. One sound per breath. This is the kind of piece which I feel reassures the nervous and challenges complacency.  

Sometimes competent musicians feel it is beneath them because they know they can play whole series of notes and why on earth should they just limit themselves to one short sound. However, as someone once said in one of my courses, in Germany. ‘It’s simple but it isn’t easy!’  

When you attempt to recreate the pitch and attack of your first short sound, every time, it is challenging for everybody. We are not machines and cannot reproduce the same sound 100 percent accurately. That is the beauty of the piece. You can enjoy aiming for that without any attachment to it. The more I surrender to this, not as an impossible task to stress me out but as a fascinating adventure, the calmer I become and then I actually get close to reproducing the sound accurately. The beautiful irony is that by limiting ourselves to this same and not the same repetition, we start to become aware of the overall sound of the group in more depth and that can lead to genuinely unforced complex group improvisation  Whereas more skilled musicians have sometimes missed the point, I have experienced a gut understanding of the “Click Piece” in countless workshops with people with learning differences; a creative intelligence which means that they accept the brief and happily make repeating short sounds which evolve naturally into wonderful improvisations.   

My second visit in 2016 was not so densely packed with activity but was equally rewarding. I particularly loved working with the Kijana Youth Program, a regular Nameless Sound event.  

As an icebreaker, I used a variation on the Call and Response found throughout the world, including in Gaelic psalm singing where the presenter sings a line and the congregation repeat it, often in slightly different rhythms from each other which gives it a wonderful sound.  

I have adapted it to allow each person to make a simple offering going round in a circle. I emphasise that the simplest sounds can be the strongest when repeated by the group; i.e. a long bebop line may not be so easy to repeat, although it could lead to some interesting responses! However, keeping it simple takes the pressure off having to come up with something ‘clever.’  Every contribution is valuable. The gentlest sigh when repeated by everybody is stunning.

Participants also have the option of saying ‘Pass’ which we also respectfully repeat. I usually find that no matter how nervous or shy someone is, if there is encouragement without pressure then by the second or third go-round they will make a sound for the group. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to honour every offering, because each individual contribution is indeed a marvelous gift to the whole group. After a while we can repeat an offering two or three times before going on to the next person until the repetitions grow longer and vary more and it becomes a group improvisation. Later on in the workshop, David demonstrated some of the ways Nameless Sound works with the group and our energies combined and led to joyous playing, singing and dancing.   

I spoke earlier of how staff, teachers, and manager/owners can make a huge difference.  Somewhere where this was disturbingly clear was in a workshop at HCDE Academic and Behavior School East. It felt more like a detention centre with what felt like heavily medicated inmates. They were beautiful souls and I felt privileged to make music with them. However, some of the staff felt like guards waiting to pounce in pre-emptive strikes against possible ‘bad ‘behaviour. We had to keep reassuring them we were ok and felt safe. I understand that they had safeguarding concerns but they didn’t make me feel safe. In fact, they took one participant away which distressed his friend so much, they took him away as well. Despite our protestations, we were powerless to stop it. It felt awful. This is the kind of place and staff I would like to work with on a regular basis. It’s the staff that need the workshops even more than the youth. It reminds me of when I did workshops in a psychiatric hospital in London. I was more scared of the staff than the patients. We would get into some creative altered states, safely and then staff would be alerted by the unconventional sounds we were making and would appear to check us over and I would feel like I was misbehaving in some way. Some weeks I would turn up and previously bright and alert people would be zonked out on heavy doses of psychiatric drugs and barely able to move. I’m so glad to be involved with other people with lived experience in campaigning for rights. If you have a mental health or learning disability diagnosis, you can have no rights at all if they deem you do not have ‘mental capacity.’  

In contrast, the person who ran the Smartie Pants Academy Center  for children with special needs was open and enthusiastic and handled the joyous noise and chaos as well as the more focused music of the workshop session. I felt totally supported by her as I did throughout by everybody in Nameless Sound.   

A huge joy for me was being taken by David to the Silver Slipper blues club. I was too ill on my first visit. What a fantastic club and what a welcome. I got to sing with the brilliant band and danced to them as well. I used to hang out in great clubs in my teenage years and dance to great sounds on the jukebox and it was such an uplifting, deep down experience, made even better because it was live music. I loved the band so much and the club is one of the best I’ve ever been in.   

Nicols at The Resounding Vision Awards Dinner

In 2016 I was moved and deeply honoured to receive the Resounding Vision award. Wow. My first award ever and truly appreciated. I feel so privileged to have shared community music with so many people for over 50 years.   

The concerts were all great to be a part of. I was honoured to do a duo with William Gray. David brought us together on Zoom to reminisce and also we played together again. I love William.  

The concert night in 2016 was amazing as well. I got to do a solo performance, a duo with the fantastic singer Ivette Román-Roberto and a group performance with Keisha Cassell, Sonia Flores, Sandy Ewen, Sonia Flores, Emily Nelson, Rebecca Novak and Ivette. 

I loved all three. Ivette and I connected our voices in a myriad of ways and we also got up to mischief as well, moving round the room and interacting with Ryan Edwards, the brilliant sound engineer, and also with members of the public. I got a similar sense of the sublime and the playful with the larger group. Great music and elements of theatre. What a joy free improvisation is.      

I have to mention my gratitude to David for organising what has been one of the most important parts of my life for 30 years, the improvising happening I co-founded in London in 1991, The Gathering. I talk about it to almost everyone but David decided he would like me to host it in Houston and I did. We were in a huge hall. It started with a focused workshop and then morphed into The Gathering both of which can be heard as part of these musical archives.   

I loved both. I used John’s “Sustain”and “Click” pieces in the workshop and I spoke a lot about The Gathering and being true to our energy and how  the more we follow what we feel good about, the more tolerant we can be to what other people are doing even if it is very different or even something which maybe unsettling to us. There was some wonderful musical interaction and a lot of listening and synchronicity.   

It doesn’t matter how focused a workshop is, however, once The Gathering starts, it’s wild and anarchic nature takes over. At times it felt like being at a festival or fair, with different musical stalls dotted about the room. Each one had its own character. A drumming circle, in one corner, a wee community of electronic sound artists somewhere else, a few of us vocalising in another part of the room. There was also movement between these different scenes so a lovely nomadic quality as well. At some point a young musician Wolf, came up to me and exclaimed,“This is butoh!” 

The only butoh I knew was the very slow movements of a butoh dancer who regularly attended the London Gathering for awhile. I asked Wolf what he meant and he replied “Whatever arises.”
This is how I’ve come to understand on an even deeper level what The Gathering is and why I love it so much, however challenging it gets.

Whatever arises. It shape-shifts totally unpredictably. Just when you think nobody is listening, there is a communal connecting that takes the breath away. The ‘not listening’ has its own magic. It’s like a constantly gurgling river that never stops and isn’t necessarily listening to the wind in the trees or the birds or humans nearby. It is still a totally connected soundscape.   

In fact, at some point after all sorts of twists and turns, there was a sense of all those different pockets of sound coming together. There was a tuning in to the whole which was profoundly moving to me. We were as one, in our different rhythms together and then we intuited a beautiful ending and sat in an almost meditational silence for awhile. And then someone looked at a watch and communicated that we had ended just in time to pack up in time for when we had to leave the hall!! Ah, The Gathering touches my soul so deeply.   

Workshops, concerts, gigs, a fantastic club, an awards ceremony, how lucky to be part of all that.   

I am so glad Nameless Sound exists. Thanks to Veronica Salinas for coordinating this Nameless Sound anniversary. Thanks to David Dove, Jason Jackson, Jaawwad Taylor, Ronnie Yates and Michelle Yom who were with me in the workshops  in 2009 or/and 2016.  

Also thanks to all the great musicians in the different ensembles and performances, including; Susan Alcorn, Keisha Cassell, David Dove, Ryan Edwards, Sandy Ewen, Sonia Flores, Fred Frith, Khrystah Gorham, Lucas Gorham, William Gray, Jason Jackson, Rebecca Novak, Emily Nelson, Ivette Roman-Roberto and Michele Yom.   

Thanks to all the teachers, workers and staff in the different schools and centres and most of all, thanks to all the brilliant participants in all of the workshops. You are what it’s all about.   

I am overjoyed by what can be achieved when we share practices of creative freedom.   – MAGGIE NICOLS