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Sounding Promise in the Present Tense: IICSI Vancouver Colloquium, June 22-24, 2018

This year’s IICSI colloquium—Sounding Promise in the Present Tense: Improvising Through Troubled Times—happens during the opening weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, from Friday June 22 to Sunday June 24, 2018. All of the talks, presentations, and performances, which are free and open to the public, take place in room C420 of UBC Robson Square, the downtown Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia, located underneath the Vancouver Art Gallery. By my count, this is the tenth Vancouver colloquium supported by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and by its parent research initiative, Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP), which have been presented almost annually here since 2007. Rainbow Robert, from Coastal Jazz, and I have curated this year’s colloquium, blending various modalities of and approaches to improvisation. Here is the provocation I put together to suggest some of the potential overarching themes and trajectories for our event:
At this year’s colloquium for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, presented in collaboration with the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and Coastal Jazz, presentations and performances will address questions around what it means to improvise in a challenging and uncertain present. What roles can the improvising arts play to address cultural and social turbulence? How might improvisation both settle on and unsettle our senses of what matters now? How does improvising confront our enmeshments in a heavily mediated and diverse world? What sorts of connections and resistances does improvisation enact? How might improvisation involve practices of disruption and of reconciliation? Of protest and of healing? Of undoing, of re-mixing, of co-creation? What senses of promise can improvisations sound in a time of unease and displacement?
We have expanded from two to three days of programming, and part of our focus this year involves making space for indigenous performances and community work. On Friday, June 22, we will be presenting Tla’Amin youth activist, singer-songwriter Ta’Kaiya Blaney. We will also be featuring a performance-discussion by Blue Moon Marquee, and a day of workshops and presentations on community engagement through improvisation; some of this latter work has emerged from the influence of Jo-Ann Episkenew, and we have dedicated the day to remembering her legacy.
There will be artist keynotes on Saturday and Sunday from drummer-composer Scott Amendola (titled “Stretch Woven”) and guitarist Nels Cline(“Improvising from the Get Go”). Writer Gillian Jerome will give a poetry reading on Sunday morning, and writers Dina del Bucchia and Jen Sookfong Lee will record a live “Can’t Lit” podcast on Saturday. Percussionist-improvisers Joe Sorbara and Dylan van der Schyffwill discuss their co-creative approaches to improvisation, and British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert will present  her piece “Letters I Haven’t Written.” Guitarist Aram Bajakian and poet-singer Alan Semerdjianwill discuss their collaboration involving musical settings of poetry around the Armenian genocide.
I’ll post expanded blog entries on each of our presenters in the coming days. In the meantime, check out some of the links above. And feel free to come on out any or all of the colloquium presentations: there are going to be some exciting, powerful and compelling moments!

Samuel Blaser, Francois Houle, Aram Bajakian, Torsten Mueller at Ironworks, Tuesday June 23, 2015

Aram Bajakian, Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller
A five o’clock set at Ironworks on Tuesday opened with the duo of Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser and Vancouverite François Houle on clarinet, playing music that skirted the boundaries between jazz-inflected improvisation and open-scored new music. This reed-and-slide (Houle’s term) instrumental combination has precedents in Albert Mangelsdorff and Lee Konitz’s Art of the Duo (1988), which built on Konitz’s 1967 Duets, and also – even earlier, and perhaps stylistically a little closer – in Jimmy Guiffre and Bob Brookmeyer’s contrapuntal interplay in trio with Jim Hall in the late 1950s. Samuel Blaser’s fleet, warm tone is closer to Brookmeyer, although he occasionally shares some of Mangelsdorff’s vocalic depth and probing polytonality. Houle, too, has acknowledged some indebtedness to Guiffre’s later, freer musical concepts, although he points to Bill Smith and to John Carter as more compelling antecedents. (Carter’s duos with cornettist Bobby Bradford might also set some textural precedents for Blaser and Houle’s reed-and-slide, as might Gerry Mulligan’s front lines with Brookmeyer and with Chet Baker.) Houle’s playing sometimes recalls Debussy and Messiaen, too, while Blaser – occasionally echoing a little Baroque sackbut – has reframed late Renaissance compositions by Monteverdi, Machaut and DuFay; he and Houle offer a multimodal, polymorphic and richly evocative music.

Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser (The camera seems to have auto-focused 
on the back of pianist Benoit Delbecq’s head — who was sitting in front of me.)

The two-horn line can seem spare and linear, but both Blaser and Houle have a fullness of tone and a sensitivity to space, as well as a willingness to let melody and line resonate and open out into the room. The music builds on close, intimate, mutual listening, mixing counterpoint with thickly vertical harmonizing; playing two clarinets at once, Houle instantaneously concocts Pythagorean-sounding harmonies that make me think of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata and Kirk’s performances with trombonists Dick Griffin and Steve Turre. I don’t mean, by mentioning all of these other players, to suggest that this music is derivative: Blaser and Houle produce music of striking originality and boldness. But I also hear a deep sense of history and of performative inheritance that locates their work alongside that of some of the greatest and most challenging improvisers of this past century.

Aram Bajakian, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller

         In contrast, guitarist Aram Bajakian and bassist Torsten Müllerfollowed with a freely improvised duet that focused on mesmeric drones. They began with Derek Bailey-like sparse plucking, but soon morphed into sustained overlapping tones, Müller favouring arco to create a singing, low continuo. Aram Bajakian, sitting to the side of the stage on a piano bench, used a few delay pedals to draw looping hums from his strings. I have to say that for a few moments, or minutes, I lost a clear sense of bounded time as I listened; their interactions were hypnotic and intense, even though both had a fairly modest stage-presence, and were more interested in co-creative agency than in self-assertion.  (Interestingly, at a few points in the session police sirens bled through the walls from the streets outside; the musicians, rather than frustrated, appeared willing to respond in kind, drawing the outer world’s aural palette into their own emergent soundscapes.) Blaser joined Bajakian and Müller to make a trio, and again the group primarily concentrated on collective sounding, long, layered lines from which brief shards of melody sometimes emerged, only to submerge again is the collaborative flow. At one point, Bajakian pressed a small motorized wheel into his strings over the pickup to overcome the guitar’s natural decay, developing rich resonances and electrified overtones from the instrument reminiscent of folk violin: concordant depth. Houle returned for a final quartet, a shape-shifting shared composite of the contrapuntal and the harmonic; again, the attention to space seemed paramount, so much so that for the final minutes Müller had stopped playing, bow at his side, intently listening and letting the piece take its course toward mutual silence, as an inspiring set of exemplary, sterling and powerful improvisation drew to a hushed close.
Aram Bajakian (Torsten Mueller in the corner)