Malcolm Goldstein is a violinist, composer, and improviser who has consistently found his own path in music, and expanded possible ways of thinking about music along the way.

Jade Mountain Soundings graphic score by Malcolm Goldstein
Jade Mountain Soundings graphic score for violin, by Malcolm Goldstein. See www.tactilepaths.net/goldstein/ for the complete document, including how to read this score. Goldstein will discuss graphic scores like this in his free masterclass at Carleton University on Friday.

Goldstein is known for extending the range of tonal and textural possibilities for the violin, for experimenting with new ways of notating music through graphic and text-based scores, and as a master improviser and a writer about improvisation. He's collaborated with Ornette Coleman and John Cage – and more recently with many musicians in Montreal, where he's lived for the last 26 years.

His last performance in Ottawa was in 2011 with percussionist Jesse Stewart. On Friday, he's back for two events. At noon, he'll present a free masterclass at Carleton University on graphic scores and on improvisation. That evening, he'll have a return engagement with Stewart: a completely-improvised concert in the intimate and very quiet environs of GigSpace. Details are at the end of this article.

Now 82, Goldstein was raised in Brooklyn and has been active in the new and improvised music scenes since the 1960s. Trained as a classical violinist and with an MA in music composition from Columbia University, he nevertheless quickly moved away from the standard classical and jazz repertoire, starting with his collaboration from 1962-4 with the Judson Dance Theatre in New York City. He has written extensively on improvisation, including his book Sounding the Full Circle: Concerning Music Improvisation and Other Related Matters [1988].

For almost three decades, he's divided his time between Montreal and Vermont, living in a cabin in the woods in Vermont in the summer and wintering in Montreal, plus extensive touring in Europe, although he has slowed down recently and is now primarily in Montreal.

OttawaJazzScene.ca interviewed Goldstein by phone on Tuesday, in a wide-ranging conversation about creating and listening to music. The following is a condensed and edited version of our discussion.

We began by talking about composition and a piece he wrote that was recently performed across Canada by Montreal improvisers Nicolas Caloia and Lori Freedman, which was written out in words instead of traditional musical notation.

Goldstein: Every piece of music is different. Now, because I am not so concerned with certain things in certain pieces like specific notes – I'm concerned more with improvisation structure and dealing with sound – it's impossible to notate a piece in the 18th/19th/20th century way. Some scores are using graphic notation, some scores are using notes even but not in that traditional sequential way, some scores are using collage images, some scores are using excerpts of text or whatever.

So every piece of music, then, necessitates its way of being communicated to a performer. I'll talk about this [when] I'm going into a class at Carleton [University on Friday]. I'm going to bring several different scores to show them different ways of notation.

Some pieces are not linear – they're pieces that develop like spirals, or pieces that shoot off into the sky. And sometimes you just tag on an ending to say, “OK we're going to end it because we can't play the piece forever.”
– Malcolm Goldstein

It comes down to, like with improvisation, it's a different way of organizing sound. Often it's not linear, You think of most pieces of music linearly: they start somewhere, they go somewhere, and they end somewhere. But some pieces are not linear – they're pieces that develop like spirals, or pieces that shoot off into the sky. And sometimes you just tag on an ending to say, “OK we're going to end it because we can't play the piece forever.”

Every score is different, and that [particular] score is based upon the text of a Gertrude Stein [poem], building in their own vocabulary, and then finding ways to relate to each other. I use words because that's the language that she's working with.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're saying that the source of your inspiration determines the form you're working in?

Goldstein: Yes. To put it simply, pieces come to me, and then, as a composer, I find some way of organizing [them]. I hear the piece and I then find some way to organize it and then some way to write it so that other people can play it.

“Inspiration”? I don't use that word so much [he laughs]. I breathe, but inspiration is more to me like 19th century thinking. Some piece comes to me, and I'm thankful, and I find some way of realizing it in the world.

My pieces might look like they're just words or they're just pictures or something, or blotches on the page, but they have to be rehearsed. The piece that Lori and Nicolas played, that takes a lot of hours of learning how to do those things and put it together.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What will you be playing with Jesse Stewart on Friday? Will it be a strictly improvised performance?

Goldstein: Everything I do is improvisation – even when I play Bach. I was just playing Bach yesterday, and it always sounds different. Different things happen within it.

What we'll be doing is like open improvisation, rather than free improvisation, which seems to me does not exist – because nothing is free. So we'll do open improvisation. Depending on my discussions with Jesse, I'll do some of my solo compositions or structured improvisation compositions, and Jesse and I will be doing open improvisations.

For me, improvisation is a process of discovery. You're discovering things between the two of you, in the moment, in the space, in the people listening who affect everything just by their presence. Everything is this process of openness – nothing is controlled beforehand.
– Malcolm Goldstein

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So how would you approach those together, then?

Goldstein: You begin and you play.

There are different ways of thinking about improvisation. Some people play their habits, some people have preset ideas about structure, even, between the two people beforehand.

For me, improvisation is a process of discovery. You're discovering things between the two of you, in the moment, in the space, in the people listening who affect everything just by their presence. Everything is this process of openness – nothing is controlled beforehand.

And the difference between that and a structured improvisation composition – there is a specific framework, or it depends upon the piece, and/or specific kinds of materials to work with. And so that is still improvisation but it's improvisation within a framework.

It's more – you start and you play. It's like you're walking in the woods, where you can walk in any direction or shift at any moment, and if you don't want to walk into a tree, you walk around it or you walk to the left. You might notice the flowers or all of the sudden it might get a sprinkle of rain. You might decide to move faster.

This is improvisation, in other words, in a natural setting. To me, improvisation is so living, it's everybody's life and most people, as Thoreau said, live lives of quiet desperation. I hope improvisation is not desperation! It's pure joy and the process of discovery and really being present and listening to each other and going on.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: In one interview I read, you said that improvisation is always just in the present moment.

Goldstein: That's right.

You're in the present moment. To put it another way, if you look at a brook – I choose that because I have land in Vermont and I spend time there and it's affected my way of thinking a lot.

So if you look at a brook, and listen to a brook, it is never the same. You look at it, and you say it's a brook, but it's not a brook. It's a process. And improvisation is a process. It's endless change. It's shifting here and there, so it's endless presence and there's nothing to hold on to.

It's a process in which you don't know where you're going, but you're going there, and it can start and stop at any moment.

When you're improvising, you're not thinking. You're just playing. It's a process of trust, and body knowledge, and being open to the present. It's difficult for young people because I see so much pressure on people to succeed.
– Malcolm Goldstein

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you divide your life between Montreal and in a rural area of Vermont?

Goldstein: I'm 82 now. My car of 23 years broke down. I can't afford to buy another car – even that was a used car. So I rarely get there [Vermont] unless occasionally my son will pick me up and take me there. Even then it's just for a weekend because he has to work, too. So my life is primarily in Montreal.

I toured for 30 years in Europe and several years ago I had to stop that. Travelling is hard on me, especially jet lag to Europe. It's like, when you get older – I don't like to say old, but older – it's a process of adjustment. It's improvisation! It's a process of adjustment of what needs to be. Vermont is always in me, but I don't think I'll be able to go there very much. Maybe never – I don't know.

That's the same thing with playing the violin. I've played violin for – I don't know – 75 years, maybe? Something like that. Everything you have to adjust to, and maybe stop things. We'll see.

But no, it's very sad. Vermont has been wonderful. I've learned so much. So much has been given to me from living there.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What have you learned from, or what has been the effect on you, of being part of Montreal's improvised music community?

Goldstein: I've met other people, shared music with other people like Nic and Lori, Jean Dérôme, Jean Rene, Rainer Wiens, a whole bunch of people. Then also I just worked with a film person here, and poets.

It's a very rich environment; that's why I moved here 26 years ago. I decided I had to stop running around so much and come to the same bed, and I applied to live here. And it's a wonderful environment, which is changing, by the way. It's getting more limited for me. I don't even play so much here anymore.

A few years ago, I made a CD recording with the Ratchet Orchestra, Soweto Stomp, produced by Mode Records in New York. And Nicolas did the whole thing! He was wonderful.

One year he said, “Well let's do some of your music”, and we did. And a year or two later he raised money with the Ratchet Orchestra, and I wrote a whole bunch of pieces. Wonderful improvisers here, wonderful musicians. I did a whole program and then he raised more money to make a recording and then he convinced Mode Records [to release it]. He did everything! So I'm very, very thankful. It's analogous to what I've said about Vermont. I've had a very fortunate life and encountered wonderful people and experiences, and I questioned the whole thing! [laughing]

My attitude towards recording in general was “Oh, it's just a recording. It's a facsimile, it's a document. Fine, do it. I don't care.” And then when we got to the finished product, I was so excited [he laughs] and so thankful. It looks wonderful and it sounds wonderful.

In the beginning, when I made my first LP record, I wasn't interested to do that, even. This was back somewhere at the end of the 70s maybe. It's called “Soundings” and it was primarily to get concerts – and it worked. It got good reviews and that's how I started around the same time touring in Europe. I wasn't interested in a document; I was interested in being able to make available to producers what I do. If they don't like it, then fine, and if they like it, hire me and pay me [he chuckles].

But what Nicolas did was very, very special.

So you ask about Montreal? When you play with other people, you're not just playing music. You're sharing their lives. If they're not playing their habits …. there's a lot happening now with younger people, or maybe always, that people are concerned with being “effective” and they want to be successful, to show how good they are, and to get more performances, or maybe even money and things like that. The scene is changing; the world is changing. I'm not part of that world.

Maybe I'm naïve, but … not just to me but other people too it feels like there's a tightening up of everything, so that there isn't this openness. Most people don't want to fail, they want to show you how well they can play, and that they know what they're doing and that they're working and that they know their equipment and how to do it properly and do it effectively.

I think everybody should keep watching over and over Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. It came out more than 80 years ago, [but] it's happening all over now. And it's terrible.

But in music, too, people [are not like] Charlie Chaplin. They want to do what they're told to do and they want to do it well and if not told to do, they know they're asked to play because people thought it was worthwhile to be heard. And people then start locking themselves into habits which are “effective”. And that's not improvisation, that's composition.

[As a listener] you don't analyze. If you're analyzing and you're thinking, you're not listening. The beauty of improvisation is that it's a process of sharing, and the listener is as engaged in it as the performer.
– Malcolm Goldstein

I tell people if while you're playing, you're thinking, it's not improvising. Stop and write down the piece because it might be a good piece of music. When you're improvising, you're not thinking. You're just playing. It's a process of trust, and body knowledge, and being open to the present. It's difficult for young people because I see so much pressure on people to succeed.

I come from a time in the 60s in New York with the Judson Dance Theatre. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but the dancers said, “Why don't you just walk around the room and play something?” And I said, “What?” “Anything you want.” Well, that was terrifying! That was the first time I started improvising. [he laughs]

I worked with people as extremely different as Ornette Coleman and John Cage – and both of them have written pieces for me, and both respected how I improvise.

There's no intention. I love John Cage and a lot of his music, but we think very, very differently. But one thing we agree upon is that “music without intention” is what music is about. Music with intention – that's 19th century thinking. Or other times too with programmatic music.

And so for me, music is here. You're doing it. You're not intending to impress somebody, to express something, to do anything. You're just playing. One cannot help but be expressive, because even a stone is expressive, a brook is expressive, the wind in the trees is expressive. Everything is expressive, when it's not trying to be expressive. So there's no intention involved, and yet expression happens.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So when someone is listening to that music, that expression, should they be experiencing it or should they be analyzing it?

Goldstein: [laughs] No, you don't analyze. Even when you're listening to Bach, even when you're listening to anything, sound is a physical phenomenon. And it touches all over your whole body. Your ears are specialized to so-called “hear” it, but it's touching you in a very, very totally physical way. So if you're thinking, then you're not listening. If you're analyzing and you're thinking, you're not listening.

The beauty of improvisation is that it's a process of sharing, and the listener is as engaged in it as the performer. It's a different perspective on the sounding, but they are both engaged in it. If the listener is expecting something, if the listener is judging and saying, as often people say when they go to hear to a classical performance, “Oh no, the dynamic is all wrong, and did you hear that wrong note, and no, it was terrible.” It's all judging, and they're standing outside of it. But with improvisation, it's a process of everybody being in the present. The music is, and will never be again.

If you're going to step outside and analyze it, [he chuckles] you've missed it! It's gone by.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I've noticed that the best music is the one that hits me emotionally.

Goldstein: If a person wants to be a professor, and a person allows them to take a recording, they can do all the analysis they want. But in a live performance, I can't imagine a person thinking while they're listening to a performance. Then they're weird!

Malcolm Goldstein will give a free masterclass on improvisation and graphic scores on Friday, November 30, from 12 noon to 2 p.m. at Carleton University, in the Patrick Cardy Studio (Room A900 Loeb Building, Tower A, 9th floor, only accessible from the Tower A elevator).

Goldstein will perform in concert with Jesse Stewart at GigSpace on Friday, November 30, at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25, available on-line on the GigSpace website, by credit card by calling 613-729-0693, or at the door for cash (but be warned that GigSpace only has 46 seats and does sell out). GigSpace is located within in Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, one long block west of Preston Avenue. OC Transpo route 14 stops on Gladstone at Loretta near GigSpace; route 85 runs down Preston Avenue nearby.