Creative Music Guild: Expert Improvisation on Display

Vortex Music Magazine

With multiple regular series frequently introducing local concertgoers to brilliant improvisers from near and far, the Creative Music Guild seeks to break musical barriers while building community amongst Portland's most imaginative artists and audiences. Don't miss the annual Improvisation Summit of Portland, a six-day festival full of experimental explorations at Turn! Turn! Turn!, Holocene, S1, The 1905 and more from October 15 to 20.

Guitarist and the Creative Music Guild's artistic director Mike Gamble performing in the skate bowl at NW Portland's Bodecker Foundation in SeptemberGuitarist and the Creative Music Guild's artistic director Mike Gamble performing in the skate bowl at NW Portland's Bodecker Foundation in September“Anybody can improvise. That’s the story of life, you improvise!” laughs guitarist Mike Gamble, who also serves as the artistic director of Portland’s adventurous Creative Music Guild.

As a multi-instrumentalist and educator, Gamble has bounced around the country and established music scenes, landing in Oregon in 2013 to teach at Oregon State University as well as Reed College and Willamette University since. So he sounds like an individual who knows how to open doors—both mentally and physically, for students and the all-volunteer nonprofit he helps steer—when he talks of “mechanisms of instruments and communication and then song form,” adding that “improvisation is utilizing all of those mechanisms”—these things you’ve learned and practiced—“and being in the moment and forgetting about them and sharing that communication.”

That’s where the magic happens.

Much of what the Creative Music Guild does is seek to light that spark in an open, welcoming atmosphere where everyone can experience it. “True communication and true community is about actually physically being there and creating something from that space—and creating space as well,” Gamble tells.

With four regular, established series, the Creative Music Guild does plenty to make space for ingenuity. Founded in 1991, the cultivation of experimental and improvised music has always been a core value, but the early days saw the group primarily bringing talent—mostly European musicians—to Portland. These were artists who wouldn’t likely appear here otherwise, and this concept continues as the visiting artist Confluence Series, but has evolved with an explicit emphasis on diversity—both musical as well as gender and ethnic—and elite quality.

Curators like saxophonist Rich Halley and jazz drummer Tim DuRoche started ramping up the organization’s support for local, and in 2011, the Outset Series was officially launched by drummer and composer John Niekrasz at Revival Drum Shop, natch. Specifically highlighting local improvisers and giving them an opportunity to perform in front of a live audience, today’s Outset Series happens monthly at Turn! Turn! Turn! under the guidance of Grant Pierce and Brandon Conway.

Mike Gamble (right) performing with Sound Foundry at the 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival in August: Above and lead photo by Kathryn ElsesserMike Gamble (right) performing with Sound Foundry at the 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival in August: Above and lead photo by Kathryn ElsesserQuarterly Extradition Series events, spearheaded by percussionist Matt Hannafin, explore “the intersection of composition and improvisation,” focusing on new music and composers, including locals like keyboardist Dana Reason and Matt Carlson of drone duo Golden Retriever, all performed by regional musicians and featured guests. And the annual Improvisation Summit of Portland is the group’s multi-day festival, bringing folks from around the globe to perform and collaborate with improvisers who dabble in music, dance, film and more.

This cross-medium melting pot is something Gamble is particularly interested in curating more frequently, and he’s been doing so under the moniker Sound Foundry by creating a “no rules” environment that emphasizes interdisciplinary experiences where musicians can improvise with dancers, visuals artists and others.

In all of its endeavors, the Creative Music Guild is built upon egalitarian fundamentals like: “Pay musicians for their work,” help emerging artists, and prioritize accessibility—for both audiences and performers. It’s also important to kindle community in a way that’s “not competitive or exclusive in any way,” Gamble says.

Gamble does acknowledge that the stuff the guild presents is “very challenging music; it’s not for everyone.” But he insists that “community engagement is breaking down those walls of this being some highfalutin art form. It’s actually not at all, it’s never been that. It’s actually the complete opposite. It’s a very community [-oriented], tribal mentality of: ‘This is what we have and we’re contributing together [to create something].’”

Six days at six different venues: Do not miss this year's Improvisation Summit of Portland from October 15 to 20Six days at six different venues: Do not miss this year's Improvisation Summit of Portland from October 15 to 20This means everyone is welcome to join, and, not surprisingly, Gamble is looking to increase instructional opportunities in the organization’s future. “My dream is to involve more workshops and education with budding improvisers in high school and even prior to high school.”

For the music school kids, modular synth scenesters, niche record-collecting nerds and anyone in between who attend performances, “When you come to a Creative Music Guild show, you feel like you’re a part of the experience,” Gamble says.

Revival Drum Shop owner José Medeles has appreciated this firsthand.

“Institutions like the CMG are a much-needed arena to celebrate forward-thinking and brave music,” he says. “CMG’s impact to Portland’s experimental scene is immeasurable and helps add a necessary layer of sonic truth to our musical community. Without friction, there is no movement. We’re lucky to have them.”

Don't miss this year's Improvisation Summit of Portland, a six-day festival that'll crawl all over the city bringing local experimental artists and exceptional out-of-towners to six different venues around town, including No Fun, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Holocene, S1, Leaven Community’s Salt & Light Lutheran Church, and The 1905, from Tuesday, October 15 to Sunday, October 20.

And explore more of the experimental in Portland music in our latest issue.

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