I have improvised solo very few times. That’s why it’s something that could be memorable each time it happens. I think of this handful of occasions, the most important (for me), were in Valparaíso.
Valparaíso is a singular city in Chile; it’s the main port, one of the most populated in the country, and at the same time, a perfect mix of ruin, ugliness, hustle, trade, and total abandonment. There are huge landscapes of sea and hills, uncleanliness and hordes of stray dogs on the streets, winding stairs that go up the hills through forlorn buildings or flowered ravines. All of this permeated by a nasty pee smell, with labyrinths everywhere. At one time it was the capital of the British interests in this always colonial nation, something like the other side of a bridge crossing the Pacific from Hong Kong. Long gone since and nothing remains but a fistful of idealized memories and, above all, traces and scars: the city has suffered great fires (two only this year), a bombing (1851), earthquakes (1647, 1730, 1822, 1906 -this, much like the one in San Francisco on the same year, some months earlier- 1985, 2010), gas or dynamite explosions (1953, 2007), and, of course, storms, shipwrecks and all kinds of events that could happen to a port on the Pacific. Today, apart from the port’s flux and movement, the city lives on credit of the patrimonial charm that lulls the tourism and the people who wants to drink beer. Affectionately the city is called Valpo.
I don’t live in Valpo. I owe my knowledge of some sectors of the city to my walks alongside Fernando Godoy, or to the situations that he, as general director and producer of Festival Tsonami, has produced: Ensamble Majamama playing in public squares or groups that improvise or play scores and walk following a more or less defined route (of these, the most memorable were Cariñito 3 on November 2010 and ala1RECS&arsomnis with Manfred Werder on March 2011). Thanks to these situations which slightly alter the normal reality (not in a touristic or beer, or avant garde mode), I have seen something that that is in plain sight in this city, but in others (at least in Santiago, where I live) it’s more unusual to see clearly: the superposition and juxtaposition of layers and layers of history and nature. There are layers of abandonment and work, everyday life and trace of a disaster, construction and entropy, multiple times cutting into each other, crossing each other, without a general timing. Namely, something very similar to what happens when improvising: something is done, something goes wrong, an attempt to fix it ―and it’s worse, many times crossing without producing a general or common one. Valparaíso is one big catastrophe in extremely slow motion. Improvising is a catastrophe in fast motion.
Marcelo Maira, of Proyecto Tárabust, invited me to a small show in Valparaíso, a duo with Nawito Morales. The place, Casa E, a little cultural center with a book store that is also a place for music, is located in a very touristic, gentrified neighborhood. A few days before the show, Nawito excused himself saying that he could not go because of his job. An extra worry. Playing solo. Bearing it alone. I had already decided to carry as little as possible, which is not always the case. I had long felt uncomfortable with the idea of improvising, and when actually improvising, it made me feel like a not so interesting musician. That day we traveled with María, in the morning; we came, probably ate lunch and walked along, went to the Barón jetty and to a beach near it, passing the old railway factory, where in the middle of the sand lays the rusted remains of a boat, looking like rock.
The bookstore was a very nice place, an old big house from the beginning of the twentieth century, revamped. María bought a book while I set up. Marcelo, Fernando and Rodrigo Ríos (who was going to play after me) arrived. Some people came, a family with a kid; it must have been like 10 people total, maybe a little more counting the two or three who worked at the bookstore. Two radios, toy motors, a minidisc, a tuner, an object I made with a switch, a laptop fan, paper, adhesive tape and the buttons of a telephone I took apart, maybe other stuff; all in the floor. I sat on a chair, not on the floor, I waited, to the right the wall is covered with books in shelves; it starts. Or so I think. The solemnity of a medical checkup. I press REC in the minidisc (maybe later I will use the recording). I wait. I don’t have a clue of what to do. The lights go off: a power failure. Nobody moves. I stand up (I don’t remember if I took a radio), I start the fan with the telephone keys. It is already dark. I open the window. The bookstore’s telephone rings, to stop it from interrupting some guy lifts up the receiver.
I pass between the people. Behind the book room there’s another room, all white, I suppose it was used for an art gallery. Behind this room, a huge yard, completely dark. While I move furniture, switching the radios on and off, I’m seized by an excitement, a crazy joy I haven’t felt while improvising in a long time. The people in charge of the house light candles and a guy hands me a flashlight. I start to think that I’ve never improvised in this way. I go out to the street garden, I drag a wooden seat. The motors and radios are sounding. I move another piece of furniture. I turn the radios and motors off. A silence. From the street or from another room of the house somebody says: “the world is going to end”. From the gallery I clap loud once, letting it resonate. I see how someone responds with shock in the audience (with their backs towards me). It is pitch black everywhere. The kid grows impatient, coughs. There are neighbors talking outside. A car passes. I move with the flashlight on. I probably did other things I don’t remember clearly. I let the situation come to an end completely and turn everything off. At some point I close the window. I say thank you. Applause.
I ask Marcelo if he can give us a ride to the Plan (the part of the city in between the sea and the hills) in his car, because we can’t stay and we have to take the bus (the last one to Santiago leaves town normally at 10 PM). With the city in the dark, Marcelo drives us full speed through the curved streets of Cerro Alegre, the merry hill, like in a never filmed in Valpo Bond movie. You can barely see any lights. Marcelo leaves us some blocks away from the bus terminal, in a hardly touristic, hardly gentrified, but very popular and portuary neighborhood, where one of Valpo’s markets is. We walk with slight worry, there are a lot of people in the streets, but to the infamy of any port on a normal night the darkness adds a big alteration. We walk, we trot. We reach the bus terminal, get on the bus, grab two seats, the bus leaves. Maybe this was all a little slower, but the way I remember it, or the way I want to tell it, my state at that moment was undoubtedly that of full improvisation. As the bus leaves town, we see the city in complete blackout. Only on the highway do I return to normal; the concert has ended. Hours later, in Maria’s apartment, I was informed by the news that the blackout had happened in one third of Chile, and, as the journalistic jargon says, had “affected” 9.8 million Chileans.
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