An Interview with Maggie Nicols

"I’m quite interested in blurring the so-called right and left brain; what’s rational and what’s intuitive..."

The second interview in Julie Kjær's series: Female Musicians on the London Improv Scene

A series of interviews curated by Saxophonist, Flautist, Clarinettist, Composer and Improviser Julie Kjær.

This series explores the life and work of 10 female improvising musicians on the London improv scene. Each musician has been answering different questions about their music, work, career and thoughts about improvised music. 

Chapters: Beginnings, On Improvisation, Life and career, The Instrument, The Work, Inspiration and other thoughts

Second in the series: vocalist MAGGIE NICOLS 


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I used to sing soul, and then jazz, in pubs and at different gigs. When Ronnie Scotts on Gerrard Street closed, and the new club in Frith Street opened, there were lots of free jazz players playing there. That’s where I first heard free jazz players like Mike Westbrooke and John Surman. I remember sitting there and thinking ‘I can hear a voice - I’d like to use my voice’. I went on and on about it and somebody said ‘John Stevens uses voices over at the little theatre club’. This was in 1968. I was very shy and too scared.

One night I was at some sort of album launch for somebody. There was hardly anybody there, but Trevor Watts was introduced to me by Val Wilmer (who’d invited me to this press thing). I said to Trevor that I’d really love to try singing more freely and he said ‘well come up to the little theatre club this Saturday’. I was terrified. It was up 5 flights of stairs and when I finally made it up - there was John Stevens, one of the major pioneers of free improvisation. Trevor, John and me set up this piece. John just said – ‘it doesn’t matter if your voice wobbles or croaks, just sing any note and just keep repeating it’. He played this incredible sound on the gong and Trevor played another note on the Alto. My voice was wobbling; I was so anxious and nervous. Then after a while my voice settled, my nerves steadied and I was just listening to this overall sound. It was so beautiful, and because I wasn’t expecting to improvise, when the improvisation happened, it took me by surprise. It was just the sheer repetition, but also the way it left you free to listen to the subtle changes that happened with us breathing at different times. There was always a different combination of sounds, even in spite of the repetition. It just morphed into this beautiful free improvisation. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life; it was so intense and so sublime.

Afterwards, I had a gig singing in a strip club around the corner. I remember running to the club in the rain, and I literally was singing and dancing in the rain! I was ecstatic and I ran around to my little gig doing, you know, ‘The sky was blue and high above the moon was new…’ - I was hooked from that moment on. That’s it. It was such a powerful experience. And then they asked me to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and I stayed with them for about a year.


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I think free improvisation has made me a better singer and a better composer. I love all music basically, but I think free improvisation is the source of it all for me. To me, free improvisation is such a vast source - it’s almost like a collective unconscious source - a universal source.


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Photo: Maggie Nicols, Lindsay Cooper, Irene Shweizer Photo by Horace

I’m Scottish, but have been in London since I was 11 years old, so I always think of myself as a Londoner. I don’t think of myself as English; I am definitely Scottish.

I’ve been involved in free improvisation ever since playing with John Stevens for the first time. I’ve done other music as well- singing standards, singing lots of different kinds of songs and composing - but my big love is free improvisation.

My most important projects:

  • Working with John Stevens.
  • Singing with Julie Tippets. (We eventually had a duo, but when we first met it was within the context of Centipede, Keith Tippets orchestra. We were the only two women.)

For me to go deeply into other musical relationships would be through the Women Liberation Movement:

I felt this desire that I wanted to find other women to improvise with, and FIG (Feminist Improvising Group) was one of my first experiences of this. I met Lindsay Cooper at the Ovalhouse, when I was running workshops. She was doing music with a theatre group, and they would come to my workshop, so we got friendly. I remember saying to her that maybe we could get a women’s group together. I think one of the reasons I did, was because I went to this Music For Socialism gig and the wonderful Carol Grimes was there - with a male band. Most of us were singing with male bands; that’s how it was. I remember saying to the organisers, that it would be nice to see some instrumentalists who were women - and not just singers. In response, they said well ‘get something together’! I approached Lindsay, and she knew Georgie Born (who was the cello player in Henry Cow). I also contacted Koryne Liensol, this woman I had met on the Women Liberation scene, and then there was Cathy Williams too. So there were 5 of us at the first gig and more women joined after that, namely Irène Schweizer and Sally Potter. The group was based in London, but we worked with other women in Paris and various other places. So FIG was huge.

I then started Contradictions with Koryne Liensol. That was really important, because it was a women’s workshop/performance group. It was based on free improvisation, but we also worked with film, movement and theatre - and we devised pieces as well; the bulk of it was free improvisation. Sylvia Hallett was in it and hundreds of other women have also been through it too.

When I think about it, I’ve worked with a lot of women and it’s great. Amongst others: Caroline Kraabel, Charlotte Hug, Sarah Gail Brand and lots of other great women.

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Photo: Feminist Improvising Group (Oct 1977)

The Gathering is a huge thing for me; it is crucial. It’s been one of the most fulfilling, challenging and growth stimulating ongoing events in my life. It has had homes all over the place - lots of different venues. When we were at Community Music in Farringdon it really felt like home. John Stevens co-founded that place with Dave O’Donnell, so it felt great being there.

We meet the last Monday of the month and there’s now one in Liverpool, one in Wales and one in Austria. It was founded 25 years ago in London and came out of the frustration and arguing that was happening within the London Musicians Collective. I just had this hunger to experience something more creative with my comrades, and something like a gathering. I got that from all sorts of hippies and stuff. Not that I was a hippy when hippies were around, but I was a bit of a ‘born again’ hippy.

At one point Loz Speyer suggested we could bring instruments. Then a week later Ian Smith, the trumpet player, phoned up and said: ‘I’ve found a venue, I’ve found a pub’. At the first Gathering I didn’t know what was going to happen. We were all just sitting there. I said ‘oh maybe we can -uh uh uh ia etc..- you know, get your instruments out’ - and it just turned into this sublime lunacy. It was amazing and it was so liberating. I fell in love with it right from the start. It was just what I’d been looking for, so I became the host.

I was the one that just kept going every week, and that’s why it’s associated with me - but it came out of a few of us; it wasn’t just me.  We’ve done concerts and we’ve recorded; anything can happen with the Gathering. It’s like a training ground as well for us all.

I’ve been doing workshops for 46 years. Working with old people, people with learning disabilities people with mental health problems, young offenders etc. For me it’s all about inclusion. The experience of working with such a huge range of people, discovering over and over again that everyone is creative. That is very important.


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Photo: Maggie Nicols and Sylvia Hallett. Queer Beet flyer

The piano. I love the piano and I’ve always loved it. I love all instruments really, but piano is the one that really speaks to me. I just adore it. 

THE WORK [[{"fid":"9777","view_mode":"default","type":"media","link_text":null,"field_deltas":{"1":{}},"fields":{},"attributes":{"alt":"Trio Blurb (Mia Zabelka, Maggie Nichols, John Russell) @ Cafe Oto, 12.2.12","height":360,"width":480,"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]

I’ve always used elements of movement, theatre and dialogue - sometimes in ways that other people weren’t particularly happy with, but now I think people like it. It’s something that has evolved and it’s been evolving over a long time, but it’s crystallising more and more.

When I do solo in particular, I’m doing a combination of talking, singing and philosophising. I’m quite interested in blurring the so-called right and left brain; what’s rational and what’s intuitive, but all coming from that improvising place (Improvised dialogue). However there might be things that are on my mind, things that are important to me - like issues of liberation, which of course the music addresses so powerfully. It’s a musical liberation.

It took a leap forward when I was asked to do a presentation around the voice and improvisation. It was part of an event called ‘Her Noise’, about women, experimental music, electronics and stuff like that. When it got to my turn, for some reason I was very nervous. I found myself singing instead of just speaking; in my anxiety I went into sounds. I think people were so relieved that it wasn’t another powerpoint presentation. The novelty of it made it a huge success. People loved it! Then I was asked to go to Sweden for the same organization, where I did the presentation again. At that time, the thing that was really eating away at me was the whole issue of the way people with mental health problems are treated. So that came up as an issue of liberation i.e. the right to be unusual and different without being pathologized. It was almost like I was giving a presentation, but a musical presentation. I’m very interested in developing that.

Another thing I’ve worked with, which I haven’t done for a while, is doing a workshop on magic, music and politics. I just had this idea. I’ve often brought words into the music – so how would it be to bring music into the words? It was a big thing at the Rainbow Circle Gathering. Every night there used to be these debates in a big marquee. There was this young man, Derek Wall, who was a socialist green, who came to my workshops. He’d never played music in his life. He was quite shy, but he was great. And I asked him to pick a topic and he suggested doing a debate around Paganism and Marxism. So we booked the marquee for that evening. There were all these people turning up to talk and discuss. We set up John Stevens’ sustained piece and the click piece, which we’d been doing in the workshops. We explained what we were going to do and we told the workshop people to be very gentle and subliminal, so that it wouldn’t freak people out.

So we just had these underlying sustained sounds and it was one of the most interesting debates I’ve ever been to; the music made it possible for people to listen in a different way. There could be loads of people talking at once, and then a speech. There were lots of different rhythms, just like the music. People weren’t freaking out. Everybody was talking at once, but there was music going on as well. And then it would stop. One of my abiding memories is Derek Wall explaining Marxist theories while playing percussion. It was really nice.

I’m writing a book, called ‘Creative Liberation’, which is all about my workshop methods -but it’s also about my philosophy. At one point I was really struggling. I had loads I wanted to write, but somehow I thought, I’m going to write from the same place as I improvise from. I’m just going to close my eyes, almost going into a meditation space, and see what happens. It just shifted something.

I’m interested in how free improvisation can invade every area of our lives. It’s not just in performance, but in social gathering etc.…just that thing of connecting to the source (which is where, for me, improvising comes from) - that spontaneous source where pure potentiality is waiting to manifest.

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Photo: Maggie Nicols with Deidre Cartwright, Bernice Cartwright and Jacjie Crew in Tour de Force at the London School of Economics Hall of Residence, Islington 15th March 1978 Photo by Jak Kilby

Current projects:

  • Trio Blurb, which is John Russel, Mia Zabelka and me.
  • Transistions. Which is Caroline Kraabel, Charlotte Hug and me.
  • A new group which I’m loving (we’ve only done a few gigs) is Trio Generations. I was doing this gig at I’klectic, and on the same bill was this incredible Sweedish percussionist, Matilda Rolfsson. After that, we were both at the London Improvisers Orchestra. Then she emailed me and asked if I’d like to do something with herself and piano player Lisa Ullén, whom I had met earlier at a festival in Austria. We sort of observed that it was 3 generations, so out of that came the name Trio Generations.
  • Then of course Sarah Gail Brand; I love working with her. She got a group together with John Edwards, Mark Sanders and me. My dad died when we were supposed to do a gig at Cafe Oto, so obviously I was with my dad - but we’re going to do a gig in Austria.
  • Then there’s Les Diaboliques. It’s not London based though. The name came about one of the times I was teaching a workshop at the jazz school in Paris. When I was there, this anarchist journalist came up to me and asked ‘what are your future projects?’ I said ‘I’m coming back to Paris with Irène Schweizer and Joëlle Léandre’ and he answered ‘Ahh Les Diaboliques…’. We’re doing a UK tour soon; we’re doing the London Jazz festival this year and we’re also going to Brighton, Bristol and Derby, so I’m really pleased. We’ve been going for probably 25-30 years. It’s a great and powerful trio.
  • Another thing that is very close to my heart, is Julie Tippets and me. We haven’t worked together for a while though. We go really deep - two voices is lovely.
  • Of course the Gathering carries on. That’s really important.
  • Duo with Phil Minton and a trio with him, me and Steve Boyland.
  • The Glasgow improvisers Orchestra. I love them with all my heart. I go there every year for the Gio festival. They invited me for a week of workshops and classes with them. Being Scottish, of course that was fantastic; it was just brilliant. So I’m an honorary member of GIO - they’re a wonderful improvising orchestra.

This is just an extract - I could mention many more.


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I’m inspired by all the people I work with. That’s an ongoing living thing. My influences have come about actually singing with people, rather than listening to them.