The Volunteer's Collective

The Volunteer's Collective (VC) was initiated in Baltimore in 1989 by "no one in particular." The idea was to form a utopian-minded, open-ended, conceptually generic enfeeble that would take on projects which were outside of the value-system or perceptual/social regimentation of the prevailing culture that required or benefited from a large group. In principle, anyone could take up this collective banner and use it as a context for their activities or for organizing a large group without restriction, for whatever that was worth. The value of having a repeated generic context was to build a history and sense of decentralized continuity in the dark, as it were. Also, to simply encourage people to feel their power in relation to this kind of activity, and to encourage it.

Although music groups like The Scratch Orchestra, MEV, The Portsmith Symphonia, The London Musicians Collective (as well as nonmusical sources like "The Happenings," Situationism, & like events) were an inspiration, the initial idea was that the the VC would be an ensemble taking on improvisation-heavy "scores" for actions that were not music per se, but were more "out of compartment experiments." For instance the first score that was conceived right along with the idea of the VC involved organizing a large group to perform a score for switching on and off all the lights in a very visible house at night according to precise rhythmic notation. The second piece, "Above Below Zero" was to involve players working with differences in temperature in subzero climates. The third piece, conceived years later (and dedicated to Brian Wollee) was to have involved a percussion concert subsumed within an omni-directional sound field of white noise, loud enough to almost completely obscure the players.

As it turned out, NONE of these pieces were ever realized, for no particularly good reason. I would still like to see all of them realized, and have some partially developed scores.

Instead, beginning in 1989 a few months after it was conceived, The Volunteer's Collective immediately was used as a generic context used for what were essentially large group music improvisation performances, semi-structured sound/music pieces, and other borderline music events that involved performances in unexpected locations. The primary sites of these events were in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, mainly organized by myself in Baltimore and very vigorously by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE (AKA Anonymous) in Pittsburgh. Of these ongoing VC events, there have been probably in excess of 30 large scale events. Particularly in Pittsburgh, these got into many interesting site-specific areas. Many of the people involved in these events were probably only tangentially aware of the history and exact dimensions of the VC context. A very large and varied group of people have been involved. The context has existed as a kind of shadow in the experimental/improvised music underground, providing some amazing experiences, but largely being very low-profile.

The Volunteer's Collective took on another aspect in 1996 with the opening of The Red Room performance space at Normals Books and Records in Baltimore. This collectively run performance space (dedicated to experimental music, film, and more out-of-compartment type experiences) almost immediately began a series of free workshops which has continued almost uninterrupted since then called "The Volunteer's Collective's Crap Shoot at The Red Room," always the first Tuesday of the Month at 8:30 PM. Initially the Crap-shoots were organized by myself and Evan Rapport; later, Neil Feather replaced Evan Rapport as a primary CO-coordinator. These events are essentially open experimental/improvised music workshops where players meet and play with and for each other, occasionally working on specific structural ideas, but more frequently playing freely improvised music. Densities of players vary from solos to big-bands, and the players themselves range from the most abstruse "avant-garde" musicians to conventional musicians checking out free improvisation on a lark. Since 1996, the Crap-shoots have been very successful, involving over 300 different musicians. These events have had a huge effect on the development of a strong core group of free improvising experimental musicians in Baltimore, as well as frankly built a great deal of audience for The Red Room.

The largest event associated with The Volunteer's Collective as of the date of this writing is Sound/Shift, a three day monumental marathon made up of three 12-hour free-improvised pieces of music with a revolving door ensemble including over 50 musicians from North America. The event will occur at ArtScape, Baltimore, July 26th-28th in 2002. By the time you read this, it may already be over.

The future of The Volunteer's Collective is entirely dependent on what I and everyone else who is attracted to the context decide to do with it. I would personally like to see more people take up the banner and do interesting this with it, but don't want to be responsible for documenting or validating these activities in a general sense. I also hope that the concept is expanded beyond musical improvisation (one of my main obsessions), into the more unusual "borderline" & experientially nonconformist type areas I mentioned early in this text, but since I haven't done much to make that happen, I can hardly complain.

A thread of large-scale group possibility weaves its way through culture without asserting much of an ideology or aesthetic, hopefully helpful. As tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE has pointed out, "V SHALL C!"

-- John Berndt, Baltimore, 2002