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Time Changes: Improvisation, History and the Body
June 20-21, 2015, Vancouver, British Columbia
UBC Robson Campus Room C100
10am – 5pm Free
Time Changes is an academic symposium including presentations from artists, performers, scholars and community members from across the continent, with keynote talks by percussionist-composer-improvisers Gerry Hemingway and Billy Martin, who are both performing at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
The colloquium will focus on social, cultural and artistic encounters with, and depictions of, time and the times in which we live. What does it mean to create in the moment? What are the implications of keeping time or of transgressing time? How does the human body sound its time and place? Can improvisation bring about tangible social or cultural change?
Saturday, June 20th
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
PrOphecy Sun: The Body, Chance and Improvisation
Panel: Race, Rhythm and History
Emma Cleary, Staffordshire University
Jazz-Shaped Bodies: Mapping Space, Time, and Sound in African American Fiction
Barry Long, Bucknell University
Freedom Songs at the Intersection of Jazz and Journalism
Brian Jude de Lima, York University
Synth-copated Rhythms: Reanimating Dissonance as a Tool for Rhythmic Prolongation
Brent Rowan, Wilfrid Laurier University
The Impact of a Jazz Improvisation Experience on an Amateur Adult Musician’s Mind, Body and Spirit
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Billy Martin: Wandering
Film Screening and Discussion
Moderated by David Lee, University of Guelph
Rupert Common and the Freestyle Rap Alliance: Improvisation in Hip Hop
Sunday, June 21st
All presentations will take place in UBC Robson Square Room C100.
Julia Úlehla: The Dálava Project: Meditations on (musical) evolution and (cyclic) time: activating past, present, and future through song, body memory, and improvisation
Panel: Interfaces – Contact Technologies
Neelamjit Dhillon, California Institute of the Arts
Chapbook and CD Launch
Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano
12:30 pm Catered lunch
Gerry Hemingway: Expression in Music: A Look Inside the Personal Language of an Improviser
Panel: Impacts and Changes
Kathe Gray, York University
All time exists in the present: Utopian moments in improvised music making
David Lee, University of Guelph
Improvised Music in Canada: High Modernism and the Artists Jazz Band
Tom Scholte, University of British Columbia
AYSYNCHRONCITY AND THE EMERGENCE OF MEANING IN THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE: Cybernetically Improvised Performance Texts and their Hermeneutic Impacts
Ben Brown and Michelle Lui: MAM Music and Movement Improvisation
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
For the complete Jazz Festival schedule, click here.
Innovation Series Concerts (featuring conference presenters)
The Ironworks Studios 235 Alexander Street
The Pugs and Crows (Ben Brown) Friday June 19th 9:30 pm
Destroy Vancouver (Billy Martin) Friday June 19th 11:30 pm
Samuel Blaser/ Benoit Delbecq/ Gerry Hemingway Saturday, June 20th 9:30 pm
Dálava (Julia Úlehla) Saturday, June 20th 11:30 pm
Paul Plimley/ Joe Williamson/ Gerry Hemingway Sunday, June 21st 11:30 pm
Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.
2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song
Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto
Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto
Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver
Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC
Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”
3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out
Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate
Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver
Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC
A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule
Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.
In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.
This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.
improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.
Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:
My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.
This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.
In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.
As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.
Coastal Jazz, the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) are hosting a two-day colloquium in Vancouver on June 21 and 22, 2014, focused on the theme of “improvising across boundaries.” Presenters include Neelamjit Dhillon, Michael Blake, Tomeka Reid, Lisa Cay Miller and Rupert Common.
The complete colloquium schedule can be found here: IAB2014.
Here is a link to the Education webpage for the 2014 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, during which the colloquium is taking place.
I only met Fred Ho once, when I was asked to introduce a talk he was giving — “Identity, Music and the Asian-American Struggle” — in the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2002, at the Western Front here in Vancouver. His presentation was highly charged, as full of strident compassion and of life-energy as his music. After the talk, he asked me if he could have a copy of the introduction, and I gave him mine, which had some handwritten notes and corrections. Later, I was contacted to contribute to an anthology of writings about his work, a kind of Festschrift for him, but I never managed to get anything properly together enough to submit; in 2007, I presented an abbreviated version of my work on him as a paper at the academic colloquium attached to the Guelph International Jazz Festival, “Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect,” the text of which I have posted on my other blog, Frank Styles. This past week, I have been digging through my files to find the text of my introduction, and have finally come across it today. I’ll reproduce it below. I mention how Julie Smith, then the director of educational programming at Coastal Jazz, was working to create a symposium alongside the Time Flies music festival. Now defunct, Time Flies was modelled on Derek Bailey’s Company, an aggregating of free improvisors for a week of performances in ad hoc groupings and ensembles at the Western Front. The symposium eventually led to the Creative Music Think Tank and then, in 2007, to the first of a set of yearly colloquia in Vancouver produced collaboratively by Coastal Jazz and the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative (ICaSP). Here is the text of my introduction for Fred Ho. I remember him well.
It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce Fred Ho today.
This presentation is the first of the Time Flies Talks, a series of lectures and panels that we hope to develop into a fully-fledged symposium on improvisation and cultural theory next year, during the Time Flies Festival of Improvised Music. This year, to help inaugurate the series, we will also have a panel discussion on “How Time Flies in Improvisation,” featuring musicians Marilyn Lerner and Torsten Muller, and CJBS Artistic Director Ken Pickering, and moderated by me. It will take place here this coming Friday, February 8, at 2:00 pm; admission to the panel is free. Special thanks should go to Julie Smith, who has put these events together.
Fred Ho’s music has been described both as “politically charged,” brimming with “slashing energy” and fierce ironies, and as delicately lyrical, organic, graceful, life-affirming. His work offers a provocative mixture of idioms, drawing on — among other influences — free improvisation, traditional Chinese music and what Rahsaan Roland Kirk once described as “Black Classical Music.” His artistry seems to me to embrace both contrariety and multiplicity. Titles such as “Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan” signal his oppositional political stance, his keen awareness of the fraught dynamics of racial and ethnic identity among North American listeners, as well as a darkly comedic recognition of the exclusive and proprietary nature of cultural and musical stereotypes (not to mention a pun on one of bebop’s most famous pseudonyms). But his music and his thought are not simply directed at resistance to racial and social hegemonies; he is also deeply concerned with, as he has put it, “creating revolutionary aesthetics and changing the relations of cultural production”: with affirmation, with liberation, with creation. Fred Ho’s work seeks out a formal connection between the demands of musical form and the politics of gender, race, and class in a difficult and marginalizing world. The excluded, the marginal, the unacknowledged, sing back and sing out in Ho’s music, laying claim to agency, to presence, to immediacy — making themselves heard. His goal, he has written, “is a radical unity of form and content.” By this he means, I think, that the material lived conditions of social and cultural oppression can be engaged, countered and overcome in radical cultural forms, such as improvisation, that insist on a political dimension in the very substance of their articulation: in sound, in rhythm, in tone — in shout, cry, and caress. Fred Ho is a major artist, and a significant force in the emergence of a multicultural aesthetics. His many recordings and performances with his Afro Asian Music Ensemble, with the Monkey Orchestra, with the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet, among other incredible ensembles, as well as his numerous publications, lectures and academic residences testify to his formidable energy and dedication to the political work of making music. Fred Ho is a performer, composer, pedagogue, political activist, in short an artist to be reckoned with, who calls us to reckon with ourselves and the world we inhabit. He will speak today on “Identity, Music and the Asian American Struggle.” Please welcome Fred Ho.
In the late afternoon of Thursday, September 5, at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph, composer and bassist William Parker delivered a keynote talk for the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium (this year’s theme: “Sound Knowledges: A World Artist Summit”) called “Sound as Medicinal Herb: Creative Music 61 Years in Transition.” (The “61 years” refers to his age, he told us.) He was introduced by drummer and musical compatriot Hamid Drake, who spoke about “an energy of compassion and understanding that exudes from Mr Parker” and who acknowledged the important role that William Parker has played in fostering “my own artistic potential and awakening.” For about 40 minutes, interspersed with video clips of Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Don Cherry, William Parker offered what was essentially an extended set of aphorisms, reflecting on his philosophy of music and on the social impact of artistic practice. If it works, I’m going to reproduce my transcriptions of key sentences from William Parker’s largely improvised remarks; this, for me, is an example of one form of improvisational pedagogy, a gathering of reflections and provocations. Any errors or infelicities are my own.
Sound acts as a medicinal herb.
The core of music cannot be taught, the self-sound of a musician’s playing.
Why does the musician exist? Save, elevate, inspire and heal.
Muse plus physician equals musician.
As soon as you are born you become part of music.
Music is not something you learn. Music is something you are.
We need to redefine musical terms.
No one owns music. Nobody. Nobody owns music.
Music is the possibility of a miracle occurring.
It is a medicinal herb that heals.
You are responsible for your own self. You play the changes you want to play on a tune.
Sun Ra: “I didn’t know anything about music. It came from someplace else.”
What is the difference between knowing and feeling? You can know all of the answers, and you still can’t get anything right.
You don’t have to understand it, you have to feel it.
You need to be flowing with the spirit.
Jimmy Lyons was a shaman. Shamans heal and move us through sound. The have the juju.
Part of it comes from the blues. You can hear it. All of the musicians from Chicago, where’d they come from? Not Chicago. From the South.
They play extensions of Afro-American Improvised Creative Music.
If you play for three hours with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, that’s some magic. And I played eleven years with those cats.
How can you play music and not know anything about it? You don’t need to know anything about it. What’s important is whether your music works.
We have to have a revolution in the world. The music has to step it up a notch. We have to play revolutionary music so that we can enter into the tone-world.
You take a tone, you vibrate it enough, and then you’re in the tone-world.
Each room in the tone-world is a secret of life.
It’s not about making money, but to make music and to heal people through sound.
Don Cherry knew something about music. But at the same time he knew when not to let it get in the way.
Everybody can be an accidental shaman, a shaman for the day.
You don’t want to be a shaman for a day. You want to be a shaman every day.
The listener is also a musician.
The sound of what you say and what you do is so very important.
You are your instrument.
You have to find the Don Cherry in you and the Sun Ra in you.
Wear your colours.
We can all be brighter and bigger than what we are.
What’s the difference between a musician and a shaman? You wouldn’t hire a shaman to play at your wedding.
Music in America is more about entertainment than inner attainment.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a composition he called “Volunteered Slavery.” Now what we’re dealing with is a system of volunteered slavery. You just have to go along with the system and enslave yourself.
The best musicians never get recorded because they’re left out of history.
The Guelph festival is very very important because it brings the people who want to hear, to be fed, to rejuvenate, to be inspired.
“It’s as serious as your life.” [Or, “It’s as serious as a laugh.”]
What’s the future of jazz? In one sense jazz is dead, it has no future. Don’t cry. But: music has a future. All your major players are dead: Jimmy Heath, Johnny Griffin. For me, I don’t hear anybody playing any jazz. Jazz has moved on. We just find something else. But hope goes on.
“In order to survive, we must keep hope alive.”
There is a universal tonality.
Boom. Let’s go. Let’s play. Boom.
Juju is in every country. It’s universal.
It doesn’t make any difference what you call it but it will go on.
At the final meetings of the research team for the “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice” research initiative, held on Monday September 2, 2013, at the University of Guelph, we had an opportunity to divide into our various research streams and interest groups, and to reflect on achievements and outcomes over the past six years of the grant, around the establishment of the interdisciplinary field of Improvisation Studies. (Co-ordinators for each of the seven clusters were invited to present at a panel during the upcoming colloquium, on Wednesday morning.) Rather than catalogue books, performances, courses, etc., what many of us elected to do — to reflect the on-going and open-ended aspect of research on and around improvisation — was to produce and hone a set of research questions that had come to inform the work being done by our group.
Here are some of the questions we collectively arrived at, in the “Improvisation, Text and Media” stream, for which I have served as co-ordinator.
How do improvisatory practices affect the production, dissemination and reception of new media art?
What are the impacts of electronic and social media on poetry, literature and other textual practices? How is the study of print culture impacted by a critical emphasis on improvisation?
How can methods and approaches that have emerged from improvisation studies be deployed to assess the velocity of information, and the pace of the transformation of the human archive? What are the emerging temporalities of writing?
How do new media offer a means to investigate the permeability of the academic and non-academic worlds?
What are the key tropes around which inquiry into text and media in improvisation takes place? (Some of the tropes we mentioned included membrane, network, fractal, pod, articulation, mix, polyphony, voice, texture, ear.)
How does improvisation both expose and re-instantiate inherent social power structures, especially around concepts of authority and expertise?
How do social and electronic media influence reading and reception?
How do text and media studies articulate with improvisational pedagogy across the disciplines?
What does the study of improvisation, text and media bring to the understanding of canon, of expertise, genius and orthodoxy? How are we to accept or to resist the tendencies for improvisational tactics to becomes orthodoxies or ideologies?
How are practices of appropriation, borrowing, imitation, representation and revision managed through improvisation?
Our hope was that these questions, and others, might serve as contingent focal points, both to understand the work that has been ongoing in this sub-field and to provoke and urge the development of new work.