The Gathering

Click to view more photos of The Gathering

Another opportunity to experience how Maggie expertly cultivates discipline in order to deftly navigate and embrace chaos is in the phenomenon of what she calls The Gathering. The Gathering is a long-form improv session that originated in The London Musicians’ Collective and is now kept alive by Maggie and her community in Cardiff. Under Maggie’s guidance, we organized one in Houston.

Audio of the workshop preceding The Gathering is included in this edition as well as audio from The Gathering itself. A listen to the workshop, which is both a talk and a run through musical exercises, is an opportunity to get a deeper experience of Maggie’s understanding of The Gathering.

The Gathering itself is a long audio document. We suggest interacting with it in any number of ways. Maybe just “drop the needle” randomly and pop in at any moment in the recording (as if you arrived sometime in the middle of the session).You could run the whole thing for a good ambient listen. Or you could even join The Gathering by playing along or singing along with it yourself! – DAVID DOVE

the houston gathering:

Allan Aguilar – voice, ukulele
Dorota Biczel - voice
Abel Cisneros – drums, recorder
Austin Cooley – electronics
Carol Sandin Cooley – acoustic noisemakers, vocals
David Dove – trombone, percussion
Ryan Edwards – piano, violin
Sandy Ewen – pedal steel guitar
William Gray – synthesizer
Danny Kamins – alto saxophone
Ruthie Langston – cello, movement
Jason Jackson – saxophone, percussion
Justin Jones – voice, xylophone, piano
Bobby Levy – percussion, voice, movement
Maggie Nicols - voice
Rebecca Novak – piano, cornet, radio, movement
Froncell Reece – xylophone, darbuka
Ben Roidl-Ward -Bassoon
Wolf Say - guitar
Damon Smith – double bass, ipod
Joe Wozny – guitar, piano
Ronnie Yates – guitar, voice/text
& other anonymous participants

Maggie and Nameless Sound worked together on the description to promote the event:  

Improvisation Workshop & The Gathering with Maggie Nichols (Cardiff, Wales)
2-3pm: Improvisation workshop with Maggie Nicols
3-6pm: The Gathering

These events are free and open to all, 
regardless of experience.

The workshop will begin promptly at 2pm. 
Please be set up and ready to play at that time.

The Gathering will begin at 3pm, and goes until 6pm. 
Participants are welcome to come and go freely throughout The Gathering.

The Gathering is a meeting of improvisers from any media or medium (musical or otherwise). It is open to all. The Gathering is unstructured and non-conceptual. It’s about collective interplay. It is open to go anywhere, depending on who is actually present at the time. It is an open-ended, free-form happening. The Gathering is a safe space for however little or much participants want to do. It could include music, movement and painting, or even just having a sleep or a chat.

The Gathering was founded 25 years ago by Maggie Nicols to allow for a creative space to play and explore without limits or judgment. Musicians, vocalists, poets, writers, performance artists, dancers and visual artists are all welcome.

"The Gathering is a space, place and time where we can build up confidence in our creativity; where we can sit in silence, sing, play an instrument, draw, be poetic; prophetic; we could talk in tongues, talk to each other, to ourselves, talk to voices. We can listen, make sounds; melodies and noise, soft and loud; leave space, fill it up; explore rhythm and time, chaos and rhyme; lullabies and laments; shyly and boldly be in our different rhythms together."
  – Maggie Nicols

Reflections from Participants on The Gathering

One anecdote from The Gathering in Houston: It took place in the cafeteria/auditorium at MECA (the arts community center where we do much of our workshop and concert activity, housed in a 120-year-old elementary school building). It’s hard to recall everyone who showed up, but at least 25 people participated. Among them was a girl who must have been about 4 years-old. After three hours of playing and singing and dancing and sounding and moving, we neared the end of this happening. No clock was visible. But somehow the group accomplished the thing that nearly every improvising ensemble is trying to achieve. It found an ending. That ending happened exactly at the moment the session was scheduled to conclude, at the three-hour mark. And as the piece ended, there was that little girl. Holding up a piece of percussion in one hand and a stick in the other, just about to strike. Hearing and seeing the consensus of the group, she stopped and rested. The piece was over. –DD

Maggie’s devotion to maintaining what I hesitate to call an inclusive space–only because her commitment so exceeds what “inclusivity” usually entails–found its clearest expression in The Gathering. This practice, which Nicols has been cultivating since the early ‘90s, is an open meet-up for anyone who would like to gather together in sound, movement, creative production of all sorts as well as those who just want to observe or take a break, have a snack, etc. Unlike the other events Nameless Sound organized around Nicols’ residency where we were intervening in other community’s spaces, this was an opportunity to play host, to create a space of our own with Maggie as our guide.  

Setting up shop at MECA, which is the closest Nameless Sound has to a public-facing space, was as simple as clearing the auditorium, making room for people to create pods, clusters, circles for working together in all sorts of configurations. While I don’t remember the music made that day very clearly–there was a lot of it–I do remember moments of deep release: a friend screaming, making a sound louder than I’d heard her make before or since, people relaxing into the idea that there was nothing in particular to be done here, that the pressure was off. Maggie was moving about, sitting near people, sometimes silently, sometimes joining in their sounding, always ministering to the tender edges of what that space could accommodate. That day was not about Maggie–you could have been there without even knowing she was! But it somehow couldn’t have happened without her. – JUSTIN JONES

Freedom to express. Permission to be. Whatever might happen next (a precipice of multiple unknowns), our collective responsibility, our charge, was to foster an environment where every sound can be accepted, every utterance and gesture meeting in reciprocal existence. An invitation to accept, and to be accepted. A paradoxical concentration of openness and inner-ness mutually blossomed as the unfolding creation of shared environment played out that late April afternoon in the slightly darkened, cavernous, and perennially coldish cafeteria-cum-auditorium of the Historic Dow School building - for many years now celebrated as the visionary and sustaining cultural arts and educational institution, MECA Houston. What a better place for this auspicious gathering? I unfolded my cornet case and brought out some favorite sounding objects – a small milky peach-colored sherry glass and its attendant ping pong ball, a treasured clay bird whistle from Oaxaca, my trusty transistor radio, purple yarn mallets for the piano strings. As the moments ellipsed into hours, a choreography of participant-performer-listener-observers assembled into multiple spatial and sounding interactions, smaller subsets grouping, spinning off, and re-forming within the cavernous space, at once interacting in miniature choruses while each utterance and movement across space and time unfolded into a wider bloom of creation. Maggie’s encouraging, experienced directives chimed out as nimble coach to the newfound space-time entity of wholeness. Ruthie’s utterly honest, direct and personal movement grounded the room in vibrating earth-energy. A chorus of soulful ethereal voices sailed to the heavens, while a searching inquiry of guitars plucked otherworldly harmonizations from the atmosphere. Electronic reverberations shot into the air like a visionary bird. At some point, a heavy metal trash can rolled clunkily across the tile floor, drummed or shoved in urgent exclamation. Participants came in and out of the creation space at will, taking time to step out and get a drink of water or a snack before returning to the work at hand. From the piano bench, a rotation of 4-hand duos took turns at entrances and exits, finally settling into intuitive sustenance as Ryan and I coaxed a polyrhythm that built upon itself in widening spheres, rolling space along with it in Morse code messages.The Gathering began to still, its unfinished utterances unspooling into a wordless song on silver-leafed breath. And the air was renewed with life. – REBECCA NOVAK

I remember Maggie Nicols' smile and her light, effortless way of making and drawing music out of people. When I try to remember The Gathering, I keep thinking about the scale — the long duration, the expansive space, and the big group, full of friends and strangers alike. 

The long stretch of time challenged me in interesting ways.The pretense of somehow being a perfect listener fades and we have to deal with our own, often boring, often interesting, everyday mind. Interest comes and goes, as does awareness. Having the time to explore that is something we don't get when we sit down to play for twenty minutes with our nerves revved up and focus battery charged up. That's an awesome feeling, but hours of realistic engagement takes a different level of focus. Finding that right level of focus and attention was part of the challenge. Choosing an ending for one improvisation is hard enough — we chose the end of who knows how many pieces! To me, what I'm interested in is looking at and being honest about what we're interested in. Over the hours of The Gathering, our interest changed continually. We aren't always interested in everything around us, so explore what you are interested in and why; watch how that interest moves around; alternate rest and work; give yourself the time to have nothing to say and still stay; have another thing to say. All the while, stay engaged with others. It was a unique challenge. 

And there was the physical space to explore those things. I firmly believe the mind works best when moving, and I think being able to go from space to space helps us be creative. My kitchen ideas are not my hallway ideas. Both are nice. Only in this scope could we play a ten second duet as we walk past each other, like the radios of two cars passing one another on the street. Some people chose the front door as the outer boundary. They could step outside and enter a different way of thinking for ten minutes before it was time to re-enter the physical, mental space of the Gathering. Sounds sound radically different at different distances from the source. We don't always get the chance to move from near– to far–so seamlessly. 

Having the freedom to move about gives us the freedom to explore socially. Walking in that big space creates a matrix of different physical and social orientations. I forget that sitting across from each other and playing is just one orientation, and that it has its own limits for social communication (expansive bounds, of course!) But such a big room opens up many other orientations. With constantly changing locations, people had to communicate their intentions and space comfort to each other. People communicated what they were doing, what they wanted, and what they were interested in without having to tell each other much. They found each other's bubbles. People looked like children choosing which part of the playground to explore. So-and-so had their turn at the piano and now it's someone else's turn. Or maybe whomever is at the piano gives a look that says: "I'm almost done then the piano is all yours". There were people I played with I never saw again, people I'd never played with and now play with regularly, now I sit and wonder where they are. 

At The Gathering, you were free to come and go, and having that option made you think about why you would stay and why you would go. Staying for thirty minutes was being a part of the Gathering and staying all day was being a part of the gathering. Maggie made navigating such an expansive situation possible, legitimizing not just note and sound choices, but physical and social choices. Maggie is very special. It was like she could meet everyone in the room where they were at once, and guide us to do the same. In improvised music, we typically try to create an open space for play and expression, but despite our best intentions, we're not always so good at actually accomplishing that. It's a hard thing to do. But Maggie, and The Gathering, did just that. – JOE WOZNY