Presenter Abstracts & Bios
Alessandro Bertinetto – “Beauty as communication: The case for improvisation”
Musical improvisational interaction has to do with the generation of possibilities of communication. However, somebody might object that performers who improvise music together do not improvise in order to find a way of communicating through music, but ‘only’ to play beautiful music.
This is understandable. Still it does not change the fact of the matter. In fact, the aesthetic evaluation of improvised music involves the need of finding criteria for assigning aesthetic and artistic sense to music. This sense must be communicable. Indeed, this sense is the very condition of communicability, that is, the possibility of forming a community.
This is what philosopher Immanuel Kant already claimed. Kant identified in the “sensus communis” a fundamental condition of the judgment of taste. In short, in the Critique of Judgement (1790), Kant argued that the judgment of taste about beauty must be universalizable; otherwise, it would only be a private opinion on what appeals to each of us. Instead, the aesthetic judgment must aspire to be shared. Better: it is this very search for the possibility of sharing. As philosopher Gianni Vattimo commented, “the judgment of taste is exercised while aiming at a kind of ideal community that [in practice] is always in fieri.” The aesthetic experience is in itself an “exercise of sociability”, as Vattimo calls it, and the aesthetic pleasure is what “derives from finding the belonging of the self to a group”.
Hence, if aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment deal with the exercise of the conditions of the possibility of inter-sociality, i.e. with the discovery that subjectivity is dependent on interpersonal conditions, namely that the meaning that is attributed to our own experiences depends on a “common sense”, that is always in a process of (trans) formation, then interacting to make aesthetically successful music means to interact for generating possibilities of intersubjective communicating, of sociability. Improvisational interaction becomes indeed exemplary of aesthetic experience as such because here meaning is potentially always under construction, always in fieri. Improvisational interaction promotes the highlighting o the ongoing transformation or transformability of the “common sense” that is shaped during a performance.
Each participant at the performative interaction does not definitely possess this sense, does not have the ability to impose his/her own criteria, but brings into play him/herself and his/her standards of judgements, because the very meaning of what he/she does as well as the way in which he/she evaluates the whole performance depends on what others are doing and how they also assess what is happening.
In this sense there is no clear alternative between playing to communicate and play to create art, to create beauty. On the contrary, the inter-subjective dimension and the aesthetic dimension of musical improvisation are so interconnected as to be the one at the condition of the other.
Alessandro Bertinetto is assistant professor of Aesthetics at the University of Udine since September 2009, with the Habilitation as Full Professor in Theoretical Philosophy and in Aesthetics. He has been DAAD Fellow at the University of Munich and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the FU Berlin. He has been awarded scholarhips also at the universities of Heidelberg, Munich, Vienna, Autónoma de Madrid, and Murcia. He has been visiting professor a the universities of Madrid Complutense, Murcia, Toulouse, Luxembourg, Berlin and Valencia. He is member of the Executive Committee of the European Society for Aesthetics as well as of several philosophical societies and international research centres.
He attended to around 160 national and international conferences (including the meetings of the European Societies of Aesthetics, the Internationale J.G. Fichte Gesellschaft, The American Society of Aesthetics, Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ästhetik, The International Aesthetics Association), and teamed up with the organizers (Cartagena, Spain, 2011). He also organized several workshops and congresses at the Universities of Udine, Turin, Cartagena and Bruxelles (including the Conference 2010 of the European Society for Aesthetics and
the V Mediterranean Congress of Aesthetics).
His research interests include German idealism, philosophy of music, theory of image, history of aesthetics, both analytic and continental aesthetics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, theory of subjectivity & philosophy of art. His most recent books (Il pensiero dei suoni. Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2012; Eseguire l’inatteso. Ontologia della musica e improvvisazione, Roma, il Glifo) engage with the philosophy of music. His current research project focuses on the aesthetics of improvisation.
David Dove- A trombone player, composer, improviser, and educator
David Dove has given performances and workshops across North America and internationally. As Founding Director of Nameless Sound (a non-profit organization in Houston, Texas), he curates/presents a concert series of international contemporary creative music, and has developed an approach, philosophy and practice of creative music education based on creativity and improvisation. Nameless Sound reaches over 1500 young people every year in Houston public schools, community centers, homeless shelters, and refugee communities. Nameless Sound’s Youth Ensemble has been the breeding ground for a generation of creative musicians from Houston, many who are gaining national and international recognition for their own work. Dove has written on music pedagogy, including a chapter titled “The Music is the Pedagogy” that has been published in the collection “Beyond the Classroom” (Routledge). Dove’s early musical background ranged from studies in jazz and symphonic music, to punk rock bands. As a creative artist, free improvisation has been his primary (but not exclusive) approach to performance and collaboration. In addition to collaborations with other musicians, Dove has made music for film, dance, theater, poetry and visual/installation work. He has focused on acoustic playing for most of his career, developing a style that draws influence from jazz, 20th century composed music, the electric guitar, electronic music and European improvisation. He’s inspired by a wide range of influences from outside of his form, including hardcore punk rock, painting/visual arts, modern/contemporary dance, and Houston mixtape visionary DJ Screw. The influence of DJ Screw was the catalyst for more recent developments in Dove’s music. In an attempt assimilate the effect Screw’s extremely slow and low mixes (as a real time, improvisational music), Dove extends the trombone with the use of guitar pedals, pitch shifters, and (most importantly) sub-woofers. Non-musical performative activity has also been explored in recent projects. Dove has collaborated with a wide range of local, national and international creative musicians. He performs in both set groups and ad hoc ensembles, as well as solo.
William & Freya Edmondes – YEAH YOU: Creative Agency, Quotidian Routines, & Situated Performances as Critical Praxis
In 2013 the total-improvisation duo YEAH YOU began making music everyday in locations conventionally deemed unfit for musical performance. The project set out as a means of questioning established notions of music-making and the regulations of society: when there are so many unanswerable questions in your daily life you can either seek distraction or develop your own way of responding.
Through appropriating elements of pop (rhythm + melody + subjective catharsis – embracing, rather than resisting, idiom), an inverted pop aesthetic emerged, warping pop’s idealist representations to reveal its incompatibility with human experience. Making music in the car, in the street, next to busy highways, controversially promoting creative practice to the status of a functional necessity, the social context itself became the platform for interrogation, facilitating self-invention and self-definition as opposed to a self-adjustment to predesigned options and preordained possibilities.
Improvising music in socially integrated contexts redefines creative practice not as something for a privileged few to invest their spare time in under regulated conditions, but as something wholly accessible that experiments with the way we experience everything: under the reductive prerogative of creativity having “a time and a place,” action is generally controlled by external cultural protocols, too seldom by autonomous, internal impulse. Through exhaustive documentation the uncontrollable impulse becomes a text upon which to reflect and through which to articulate what’s possible, or even impossible (as Sun Ra said, “The impossible attracts me because everything possible has been done and the world didn’t change.”) YEAH YOU became an inversion not just of mainstream pop, but also of social norms, exposing the unconscious affect of daily life. Sharing the videos online sends out the message that no matter where you are, who you are or what you’re doing, you can always determine the course of your experience.
Casually disintegrating pop’s sound inverts (and subverts) the methods of pop convention, resisting the reliability and predictability on which cultural promotion and programming depend. A creative agency emerges that responds to its own internal necessity, reacting to the stimulus of the moment, not relying on preconceived ideals or calculations for desired effect; YEAH YOU’s performance is necessarily wholly improvised since composing and preparing material impede immediacy by trimming it to fit preconceived ideals. Through being listened to as-if-complete, the music’s performers possessing the (super-) power to shape and direct it, the product becomes a demonstration of creative agency; concert performances are phenomenologically interactive and dialogic since the music is fed by the energy of the audience, the location, and the event, enabling it to capture an inverted, discursive reflection of the actual, collective experience.
The duo YEAH YOU was formed in 2013 by Freya Edmondes (using the name Elvin Brandhi – on vocals, keyboards and electronics) and William Edmondes (as MYKL JAXN – on synths, samplers and beats). Since their first show at the Alston Mason’s Hall, Cumbria, on June 11th that year, they have played regularly across the UK and Europe. They have also played several festivals, most recently Borealis in Bergen and Counterflows in Glasgow. From the outset they have habitually recorded and filmed every session; a selection of videos can be found on their Wild Pop Vimeo page (https://vimeo.com/album/2592747).
William Edmondes has been a full-time member of staff at Newcastle University’s International Centre for Music Studies since 2004, where he has taught improvisation, postvernacular composition, Radio Art, Hip Hop and Jazz Criticism. As an improvisor he has performed and released music under several project names, such as Gwilly Edmondez, Gustav Thomas, Virginia Pipe and Copydex, either solo or in numerous collaborations with Faye MacCalman, Karl D’Silva, Lauren Kinsella, Mark Sanders, Rhodri Davies, THF Drenching, Odi Ji Ghast and many more.
Freya Edmondes studies painting at Vienna’s Akademie der bildenden Künste in the class of Daniel Richter. Outside of YEAH YOU she releases and performs solo material as Elvin Brandhi; with Odie Ji Ghast as [email protected]; and in various improvisation collaborations, such as Kilo Grandma.
John Faichney – Strong and Weak Versions of Community in Contact Improvisation
Adorno and Gadamer separately ratify the notion that aesthetic practices make possible distinct forms of knowledge. Far less clear is the import of such knowledge for social life and civic well-being. In particular, complications arise out of differences in how aesthetic experience is sharable. For example, while the imagined worlds of the novel set in motion a dialogue between reader and author, that very individualized dialogue also privatizes the experience of reading, cultivating a sense of privileged interiority. On the other hand, the performing arts appear to have a collectivising effect, as though each shared time-and-space occasion amplified social life’s intersubjective grasp. For example, conventional theatrical dance organizes movement for visual effect/affect, particularly as concerns evoking onlooker kinaesthesia. To be sure, dance as a theatre art trades on its own version of dialogue with the author, yet the force of such is moderated by the perceptual flood of spectacle and imported bodily experience. The intelligibility of the performance seems to require the performance’s being witnessed.
In Contact Improvisation (CI), paired dancers track oneanother’s movements by maintaining a point of contact (touch), and realize conversation-like reciprocal motive-testing by intervening into the touch-point’s trajectory. Note, however, that dancers’ attention is well-enough occupied with touch; they have no constitutive incentive to attend also to their or their partners’ visual display. Further, CI dancers’ bodies occlude direct view of touch-point dynamics – although, if they didn’t, it seems unlikely that seeing touch would tell us much about how touch feels. These preferences give CI’s movement a tactility-centric and body- surface-trajectory-centric character, and bestow on its presentation an elusive and exclusionary character. Of course, onlookers may still make a sense of CI as its visual and kinaesthetic display, but these features have no necessary connection to CI’s specifically conversational elements. Unlike dance as a theatre art, CI’s intelligibility in no way requires its being witnessed.
Yet CI’s paired dancers work out a sense of shared understanding between themselves. Aspects of this understanding concerns whatever movement configurations happen to engage them; others concern the continuous and unsettlable tension of who- decides-what-happens-next. It is as though each pair of dancers instantiates a dialogically- complete community of two, yet the grounds of that community are not available even to another pair of dancers nearby. All of this suggests that CI’s ‘strong’ version of community is like that of the reader and the author: an abstraction referencing an uncollected and uncollectable network. Yet the form also has its explicit, shared time-and-space community of co-practitioners. Interestingly, however, its practice has come to include occasions set- aside for determinedly collective dance-making – as though CI, left to its internal logic, could generate only unconnected, serial dyads, without any sharable sense of project or risk. This is not to imply that CI’s ‘weak’ version of community lacks participant or sociological interest. But it appears to suggest that, insofar as CI achieves effects in the community, such effects will be the result of conventional social means.
John Faichney studied dance at Oberlin College (Ohio.) Returning to Canada in 1975, he pursued structuralist and improvisation-based choreography and performance; in 1976, his durational work, “Mutatis mutandis”, was exhibited in Toronto, Lund (Sweden), Glasgow, and Milan. He was publications curator at the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC, Toronto) from 1976 to 1978. From 1979 to 1985, he was rehearsal director for Susan Macpherson’s “A personal collection”, a touring repertoire of solo dances created by internationally-recognized choreographers. He received his MA (Sociology, Toronto) in 1981. Between 1981 and 1990, with Lawrence Adams, he designed, built and operated the The Arts Television Centre / Downtown Studio (Toronto.) His 1996 dance documentary, “No guilt” – based on Paul-André Fortier’s “Non coupable”, and featuring Susan Macpherson and Peggy Baker – was exhibited on Bravo! television (now a division of Bell Media.) His involvement in Contact Improvisation began with Steve Paxton’s “Magnesium” (1972); he has frequented the Toronto Sunday Contact Improv Jam since at least the early 1980’s. His recent teaching practice – conducted, for the most part, at Leviathan Studio (British Columbia) – emphasizes Contact Improvisation’s affinities with ordinary conversation, and, particularly, how specific attention and techniques catalyse its full potential as ‘both-speaking-at-once / both-listening-at-once’ dialogue. Faichney lives in Toronto and is working toward his PhD (Sociology, Waterloo.)
David earned his BA in English from Rice University and his MA in English from New York University. An avid learner of languages, David has spent time studying around the world and has participated in programs in Reykjavik, Paris, and Vienna, where he also assisted in ESL classrooms. He currently works as an after-school tutor, a college professor, a writer-in-residence, and a creative music instructor, helping Houston students with a wide variety of subjects. David has a diverse portfolio of personal and collaborative work that includes writing, visual art, interactive media, and gallery installations. He is also an accomplished musician who has previously performed with internationally renowned artists and in such unique spaces as the Menil Collection’s Rothko Chapel and Richmond Hall as well as at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
Randy Fertel – Improv: Theory & Praxis
The publication of the Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (Aug 2016) marks an important moment in the study of improvisation across many media and disciplines. George Lewis, editor of the Handbook explains with good sense that “the Handbook makes no explicit attempt to negotiate a single overarching definition of improvisation.” With far less caution I offer an essential definition, one that may not cover every improvisation (which is the handbook’s task) but that nevertheless takes us to heart of many examples of art that claims to be improvised, takes us even to the heart of the creative enterprise.
Improvisers always urge us to believe that their achievement is not an effect of talent, skill, or method but of something beyond the reach of art, infused by the muse or by one’s genius over which one doesn’t have complete control. And yet Dutch Renaissance painter Franz Hals’s achievement is the result of a method that even has a name. His mentor Karel Van Mander, who was the first theoretician of the great Dutch efflorescence, distinguished between the “neat” style and the “rough” or “course” style. In the rough style the splashes of color, seemingly dashed on, read best at a distance. Strikingly, Van Mander recommended the rough style to those late in their career because it is harder to achieve.
The rough style, loose and suggestive, is then a cultivated affect, a rhetorical gesture. Acknowledging the “decorum of imperfection” at work in improv helps us cut through the Goldilocks Game (is it improvised too much, too little, or just right?) that short circuits critical engagement. We need to get past bomb throwing and genuflecting. Once analyzed we can see an improviser’s relation to other improvisers. Improvisations are always a challenge to the reigning rationality of their age. They are the truth behind Paul Valèry’s lovely paradox that “Everything changes but the avant-garde.”
In A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation I offer a taxonomy of the formal and stylistic gestures and characteristics of improv which persist since classical times. Those formal characteristics working together challenge the reigning rationality of the day and catalyze in the audience a more open state of mind, urging us to seize life, all of it: carpe vitam.
The question is, if there is an essential definition of improv, if there a line of improvisation that dates to Homer and which manifests a consistent set of formal devices and thematic concerns, how might that speak to practitioners and what they do?
Randy Fertel holds a PhD from Harvard University where he received a teaching award by student vote. He has taught English at Tulane, LeMoyne College, and the New School for Social Research. His award-winning 2011 memoir, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak, unspools untold tales as he tries to makes sense of his parents – and himself – in a colorful, food-obsessed New Orleans. Novelist Tim O’Brien calls his new book, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, “a stunner of a book – smart, jarring, innovative, witty, provocative, wise, and beautifully written.” Kirkus Reviews called it “A tour de force of reading in the fields of literary theory and history befitting a George Steiner or Erich Auerbach.” A labor of 40 years, A Taste for Chaos was a finalist in General Non-Fiction for the 2016 Next Generation Indie Awards.
Kathe Gray – Aha! Utopian Moments in Improvised Music Making
As part of a broader ethnographic research project on the repertoire of sensory and social attunements musicians cultivate through group improvisation, I took on what anthropologist Sarah Pink calls a “sensory apprenticeship.” Despite having little music training and questionable singing ability, I played improvised music alongside my interlocutors in order to understand what improvisational music making feels like from the inside, opening myself to sensorial, embodied, and affective ways of knowing that would otherwise elude visual observation.
At my supervisor’s suggestion, I took an improvisational approach to writing my thesis, working not from an outline but instead from ever-thickening descriptions of those instances of improvisation that caught me out, prickled my senses, and shook me up. It happens, quite incidentally, that most of my participant interviews started with a similar concern: I asked musicians to relate an “aha moment” that had been especially defining for them in terms of coming to be improvisers. I came to recognise that their stories and my own shared certain characteristics, most particularly that they were akin to what theatre theorist and critic Jill Dolan calls “utopian performatives.” In these fleeting moments, a voluminous sense of possibility lifts performer and audience, connecting them emotionally and socially to each other and to a broader public.
Drawing on feminist utopian scholarship, perspectives collected from my project participants, and my own embodied research experience, I will use these brief but profound moments as tools to consider the impact group improvisation can have at both personal and political levels. Ultimately I ask: if the material and social practices of collective co-creation can cultivate certain forms of sensory awareness and bodily competence, might they also prompt an attunement toward the utopian, toward the desire and belief in the possibility of other ways of being in the world.
Kathe Gray is a doctoral student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University in Toronto. Prior to returning to post-secondary studies, she ran her own graphic design studio, specialising in print design and typography for publishing houses, cultural organisations, and not-for-profit entities. Her book and exhibition catalogue design has received national and international recognition. She is a published poet and her academic writing has appeared in both the Graduate Journal of Food Studies and Critiques of Built Works. She lives in Guelph, Ontario with her partner, their daughter, and their Basset hound.
S. Paola López R. (with Chris Reyman, in2improv) – The Performance Activism of in2improv: How Improvisation is Helping us Build Community on the US/Mexico Border
When we co-founded in2improv in 2011, we sought to research the possibilities and intersections of improvisation between music and dance. Having spent considerable time improvising within our own disciplines, we were curious to find ways to truly create collaboratively across disciplines. We began a performance-based partnership, spending several hours a week in a studio playing, inquiring, questioning and creating together. Inadvertently, the rigor and depth of this work changed our lives, we experienced first hand the power of listening deeply and having to create new ways of interacting. Thanks to this work, one of us was finally able to overcome a damaging addiction and the other, gathered the courage and clarity to end an oppressive relationship. This year-long experience moved us to start figuring out ways to use what we were learning through improvising collectively to create social change.
As in2improv grew, we started to understand the importance of this practice not only for our artistic work, but also for the design and implementation of our community programs. Using the fundamental skills of improvisation – listening, building with offers and performing outside of our comfort zone – we were able to recognize the value of creating programs that address communities’ needs instead of carrying out an agenda. This was abundantly clear as we started our first of four ongoing bi-national programs in the El Paso, TX – Ciudad Juárez, Mexico border in partnership with CCOMPAZ – a Juárez-based nonprofit organization focused on serving at-risk youth. During the first few months of this program, we quickly learned that we couldn’t focus on interdisciplinary improvisation with music students that could not yet play basic melodies, chords and rhythms, an important outcome set by the CCOMPAZ administration. This led us to focus solely on music for the remainder of that semester, and eventually, to develop a separate dance program while redesigning their music curriculum to incorporate more improvisation.
We also bring this improvisation approach into our university teaching. By entering the classroom with an open mind and a willingness to spontaneously adapt the syllabus, we are better able to meet our students’ needs, engaging with them in the same way we would an improvising collaborator. In this way, a theoretical concept such as functional tonality, can be addressed from a playful perspective in which students explore scales, melodies, chords and harmonic progressions through cognitive and non-cognitive activities. Students often find this this approach more engaging and exciting as it enables them to make connections to complex concepts they otherwise didn’t understand. In this presentation, we will share this journey by highlighting our artistic work and how it continuously helps us develop our community programs and our teaching methodology, including a new course in Performance Activism at the University of Texas at El Paso in which we have worked directly with community partners implementing performance-based workshops highlighting play and improvisation.
Sandra Paola López R. (BFA, M.Ed.) is a dancemaker, improviser and performance activist. Her work is characterized by the investigation of complex concepts such as gender, race, identity, awareness, listening and perception, and it has taken her throughout the US, Colombia, Brazil, Cyprus, France, Canada and Mexico. Since moving to the US from her native Colombia in 2004, she has studied and/or performed with renowned dance artists and improvisers such as Kirstie Simson, Ruth Zaporah, Jennifer Monson, Rebecca Bryant, Johanna Meyer and the Lower Left Collective. Over the past 7 years, Sandra Paola has developed a strong commitment to collaboration and interdisciplinary improvisation and is currently a member of Koan – an interdisciplinary improvisation ensemble with Grammynominated saxophonist Mack Goldsbury. Driven by her commitment to social justice, she co-founded and now directs in2improv, an organization that empowers underserved communities through improvisation and performance. She has taught widely in both formal and informal education settings including the prestigious dance department at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival. Sandra Paola has presented at national and international conferences, including TEDx El Paso, and is currently a faculty member in the dance program at University of Texas at El Paso.
Chris Reyman (DMA) comes from a musical family and began performing professionally with his father when he was fifteen. He was a self-motivated student of music and developed primarily through improvising at the piano. He performs in jazz and improvisation ensembles, most notably Koan, an interdisciplinary improvisation ensemble with Grammy-nominated saxophonist Mack Goldsbury. In addition to performing, he has composed scores for two award winning short films, Pigeon Impossible (2009) and The OceanMaker (2015). His research focusing on improvisation has been presented at the international Performing the World Conference in New York City (2012, 2014, 2016), at the 8th Congress of the International Drama-Theatre Education Association in Paris (2013), at the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium (2014) and at the Texas Music Teacher National Association Convention (2015). Chris Reyman is a dedicated professor of music at the University of Texas at El Paso where he works with students that are typically from underserved populations on creative music practices through performance, composition and collaborative music making. He is the co- founder of in2improv and is currently collaborating with CCOMPAZ, a non-profit organization in Ciudad Juárez, México to redesign their Contemporary Music program.
Josslyn Luckett – “Jazz ain’t got no quarrel with VC!”: Improvisation, In a Silent Way, and early Asian American Cinema
Third-generation Japanese American writer/educator and former Oregon poet Laureate Lawson Fusao Inada, when asked recently to weigh in on why jazz music, musicians and jazz poetry figured so prominently in early Asian American cinema, he waxed: “…my 24/7 jazz people contemporaries from way back include Michael S. Harper, Al Young, Ish Reed, Jayne Cortez, painter Oliver Jackson, and so on. ‘The Music’ was the Homeland, but we just, oh, ‘diasporaed’ into other genres…but the music formed/informed us.” This year at Guelph we are being asked to consider what it means to learn through jazz or through improvisation and what a focus on improvisational methodologies might mean for community organizing. I first encountered the figure of Lawson Inada in a funky documentary-meets-choreopoem called “I Told You So” (16mm BW, 1973), produced by the Asian American media collective Visual Communications (VC) and directed by VC’s Toronto born member, Alan Kondo. The film takes its title from Inada’s hard bopping portrait of his hometown of Fresno, California, and in the film we watch the skull capped poet strut through its Chicano, Armenian, Afro- Asian streets. Lawson’s percussive reading of, “I Told You So” is set to aguaguancó rhythm, while other moments of the film are scored with Koto and flute played by the very young June and Dan Kuramoto who were experimenting for the first time with film scoring while still in the early days of forming the group that would become Hiroshima. At least two of VC’s other foundational short films were also jazz heavy, including Eddie Wong’s, “Wong Sinsaang,” a film that pairs Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way” with a son’s fraught meditation on shame and celebration of his father’s life as a laundry man in Hollywood, and Duane Kubo’s “Cruisin’ J-Town” which brings the Kuramotos and their bandmates front and center to explore the early days of Asian American jazz and Taiko in LA’s Little Tokyo.
In June of 2016 I will travel to California to interview the directors of the three films mentioned above, Alan Kondo, Eddie Wong and Duane Kubo. I will explore with them the formation of their community based media arts organization, Visual Communications, created in 1970 and today still proclaiming as its mission, “…to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives. VC was created with the understanding that media and the arts are important vehicles to organize and empower communities, build connections between peoples and generations.” Why did jazz play such an important piece in their early “empowering” community projects/films? How/what did Visual Communications as a community activist organization learn from jazz and improvisation? For my presentation at Guelph if selected I would present my findings as well as brief/related clips from “I Told You So” and “Wong Sinsaang,” with the intention of connecting community media organizing, improvisation, and the rich contributions of Asian American artists to creative practices that “diasporaed” into other genres from the “homeland’ of jazz.
A former story editor for The Steve Harvey Show , Josslyn Luckett wrote the original teleplay for the MTV movie, Love Song , directed by Julie Dash. Her plays, “Rupture/Runnin’ Thru Risk/Runnin’ To Bliss” and “Chronicles of a Comic Mulatta: an oreo/choreopoem” have been performed at the Walnut Street Theatre, The Public Theater, and Aaron Davis Hall. Her solo piece, “Imitation Expert” was developed in Roger Guenveur Smith’s 2005 Mark Taper Forum workshop and performed at REDCAT in 2007. Her play, “Like Her Shanti Doesn’t Stink: Black Women Eye to Iyengar” was commissioned by Company of Angels for their 2009 Black Women: State of the Union . In 2008/2009 she curated a series at Culver City’s Jazz Bakery called, “Come Sunday: Jazz on the Sacred Side” featuring Dwight Trible, Lesa Terry, Justo Almario and Roberto Miranda. She has a BA from UC Berkeley in Ethnic Studies, an MFA from NYU in Dramatic Writing, and an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, where in 2011 she won the Billings Preaching Prize. A recent participant in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC 2014), Josslyn is PhD candidate in Africana Studies at UPenn, where she focuses on jazz and cinema studies. Her dissertation project, “Toward a More Perfect Rebellion: The Multiracial Roots and Fruit of UCLA Film School’s Ethno- Communications Program” reconsiders the trailblazing filmwork of the black directors known as the “L.A. Rebellion” alongside the radical media work and activism of their Asian American, Chicana/o and Native American cohort at UCLA in the 1970s.
Dr. Charity Marsh is a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Interactive Media and Popular Music in the Faculty of Media, Arts & Performance at the University of Regina.
Dr. Marsh earned a BMUS in Musicology, Theory, and Performance (1996) as well as a Bachelour of Arts with a concentration in Women’s Studies and a minor in German (1997) from the University of Ottawa. From York University she earned her MA (1998) in Women Studies problematizing the dynamic and contested relationship between nature and technology in the Icelandic artist, Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic. In April 2005 Dr. Marsh successfully defended her thesis entitled, “Raving Cyborgs, Queering Practices, and Discourses of Freedom: The Search for Meaning in Toronto’s Rave Culture”, completing her Ph.D. requirements for the doctoral program in Popular Music Studies and Ethnomusicology at York University.
In July 2007 Dr Marsh was awarded a Tier II CRC position in Interactive Media and Performance. Her research program focused on interactive media and performance and how cultures and practices associated with this broad category contribute to dialogues concerning regionalism, cultural identity, and community specifically within western and northern Canada, and more generally on a global scale.
In 2007 Dr. Marsh was awarded a Canadian Foundation for Innovation Grant and a Saskatchewan Fund for Innovation and Science grant to develop the Interactive Media and Performance Labs as a way to support her ongoing research. With the development of IMP Labs at the University of Regina, the emphasis of her research and arts practices included the following areas: 1) Canadian (Indigenous) Hip Hop Cultures; 2) DJ Cultures including EDM, Club-Culture, Rave Culture, Techno, Psy-Trance, on-line, community, and pirate radio; and 3) Isolation, Identity, and Space: Production and Performance of Popular Music in Western and Northern Canada.
In July 2012 Dr Marsh was awarded a second term as a Tier II Canada Research Chair, this time in Interactive Media and Popular Music. The change in title takes into account the importance of popular music in Dr. Marsh’s research program, and her emphasis on Indigenous Hip Hop Cultures.
In 2012/13 Dr Marsh was awarded another Canada Foundation and Innovation grant to expand the IMP Labs to include the Centre for Indigenous Hip Hop Cultures and Community Research, as well as the Popular Music and Mobile Media Labs.
In her artistic practices, Dr. Marsh continues to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches and multiple medias, including turntablism, video, radio broadcasting, text, and soundscape composition.
Kevin McNeilly – Forthright Slapdash Shuffle Stomp Duo: Kevin McNeilly and Geoff Mitchell
Vancouver poet Kevin McNeilly and Montreal pianist Geoff Mitchell have collaborated since 2011, co-creating work that mixes free and idiomatic improvisation with extended compositional and lyric forms. Drawing inspiration from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “word jazz” (with its mesh of historical deference and unfettered expression), from Jason Moran’s suites for Fats Waller and for Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall Band, and from the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey, Mitchell and McNeilly create in-the-moment musical and poetic interventions, addressing through high-energy performances the cultural politics around race, gender and the body that have been materially woven into the weft and warp of jazz and improvised music. Their compact disc and chapbook Ammons: A Sheaf of Words for Piano, issued through Bandcamp in 2015, takes cues from episodes in the life of boogie-woogie pianist Albert Ammons to concoct a historically attentive critique of masculinity and race in mid-century (and contemporary) America, incorporating both pastiche and melopoeic homage into its complex collation of through-composed elegy and improvised cross-talk. Their collaboration enacts high-order practice-based research, bridging rigorous, socially engaged scholarship with lively, open-hearted, extemporaneous artistry.
For a 15-20 minute presentation, the duo will perform a set of excerpts from Ammons, showcasing their incisive unknitting of historical narratives and aural textures. They will also offer a sample of their deconstructive approach to standards and ballads (developed, in part, from Amiri Baraka’s late work with song lyrics), dismantling and reassembling song-forms phonemically and melodically to unsettle generic and structural conventions, and to scrutinize, playfully, the means by which sound both subtends and give shape to our senses of inhabited social and cultural space. Both Kevin and Geoff would be very happy to engage in dialogue with audiences around the aesthetic and political implications of their collaborative, practice-based research. The presentation requires access to a piano. Please follow the linked text to on-line samples and recordings of the duo’s work.
Kevin McNeilly is a researcher with the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, and an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. He has published critical and scholarly writing on Nicole Mitchell, John Zorn, Robert Bringhurst, Anne Carson, Robert Creeley and Charles Mingus, as well as on television drama and cultural theory. His book of poems, Embouchure, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2011. George Elliott Clarke has called Kevin McNeilly’s poetry “lyrical, free, down- to-the-bone, as real, fresh and immediate as true jazz always is.”
Geoff Mitchell is a Nova Scotian native who has studied and performed in a wide variety of musical genres. After completing a Diploma in Jazz Studies at St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish) Geoff spent some time playing music and working in Halifax. While there he played with, and was mentored by, Jerry Granelli. At Jerry’s suggestion Geoff attended Naropa Institute where he studied with Don Cherry and Art Lande. While in Boulder he was impressed by hearing Allen Ginsberg read works of Nicanor Parra. Geoff continued formal studies completing a BMUS (Jazz Performance) at and an MMUS (Media and Technology) at McGill University. Since then Geoff has continued to perform and compose with appearances at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Atlantic Jazz Festival (Halifax, NS). Geoff’s interest in how music functions contextually has lead him to working fulltime in sound design for film and mixed media. Geoff has amassed hundreds of credits in film work, and has collaborated as a composer with Chilean/Canadian director Leopoldo Gutierrez on his documentary film projects. Geoff also has dealings with poet Kevin McNeilly drawing on their common interest in the elusive intersection of jazz and poetry.
Tracey Nicholls – Improvising Rage
What kind of improvisation is possible, is needed, in a social justice movement whose central demand has sometimes been framed as “I can’t breathe”? Can an anti-racist moral revolution even be improvised in the streets of a polarized, fragmented, and disengaged society?
I have for some time been interested in national anthems as sites of resistance or critique through improvisation (most famously, in the North American context, Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance of the American anthem) and have recently turned my attention to “anthem” tactics possible for the Black Lives Matter movement emerging in the United States. One project I am currently working on considers a couple of BLM songs that I think have been producing narratives of the movement in some interestingly anthem-like ways: Janelle Monáe’s “Hell you talmbout” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage.”
Monáe’s contribution to an improvisatory moral revolution, “Hell you talmbout,” is a protest song deliberately structured to appear through improvisation: the chorus urges “say his name” and “say her name,” but/and consciously leaves spaces in its invocation of the history of racist hatred and violence that links Emmet Till to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, and, and, and… Spaces for new names? For old, forgotten names? For local/regional variations in whose names need to be spoken into the concrete context of any particular performance?
It is the possibilities in this song/song-structure that I would like to focus on, in an excerpted presentation for the colloquium of my larger work. My paper would explore both the strategic merits of constituting social justice movements through improvisatory music (this would draw on my previous work on an ethics of improvisation) and the possibilities for liberating institutional memory (e.g. whose names get remembered, and said) through a commitment to the kind of solidarity ideals that political theorist Fuyuki Kurasawa talks about as “cosmopolitanism from below.” The liberatory potential that I see in this song is its ability—much like the “people’s mic” tactic of voice amplification used in Occupy protests— to construct power horizontally, in this case, the power to curate social memory and shape narratives of popular demands for justice.
Tracey Nicholls is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lewis University, in the greater Chicago area, and co-director of their Women’s Studies Program. She received her BA from the University of British Columbia, her PhD from McGill University, and has done two postdoctoral fellowships at the Centre de Recherche en Éthique de l’Université de Montréal (CRÉUM). Her doctoral dissertation explored connections between improvised music, human rights, and social justice, and argued that social norms governing improvised music-making can help build more responsive political communities. The book based on her dissertation, An Ethics of Improvisation: Aesthetic Possibilities or a Political Future, was published by Lexington Books in 2012. Her work in social and political philosophy contributes to discourses about privilege and marginalization in decolonization theory, feminist theory, and peace studies. Her current book project, Places We Come From, and How We Get Back to Them: A Consideration of Postcolonial National Identity, explores social possibilities embedded in postcolonial conceptions of belonging and national identity, and in addition to working on popular anthems as revolutionary tactics, she is also considering ways an ethics of improvisation might support “culture-jamming” efforts to dismantle rape culture.
As an actor and artistic associate of the MT Space, Pam Patel has toured nationally to cities including Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria, and has travelled overseas to perform in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Her credits with the company include Paradise, The Last 15 Seconds, Body 13, and several Theatre for Social Change pieces.
A graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University’s music program, Pam has acquired a special focus in improvisation, both music and physical theatre. While attending the Vancouver Creative Music Institute, Pam collaborated with pioneers of improvised music, such as Evan Parker and Barry Guy, and showcased her talents at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Pam has also been a part of the Stratford Summer Music Festival, performing a range of pieces such as the Bach Coffee Cantata, alongside Daniel Lichti, and Myaudia: A Street Opera, composed by Peter Hatch.
Recently, Pam had the opportunity to play the lead role in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and had the opportunity to direct this work with Kitchener-Waterloo Youth Theatre. Pam is Associate Artistic Director (2015-present) and an Artistic Associate at MT Space.
Sara Ramshaw: Practice as Process: Social Justice & Improvisation
This paper explores the application of “process ontology,” such as that of Alfred North Whitehead, to both arts-based improvisatory practices and to legal / social justice practices. Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic; and it recognises that we experience our world and ourselves as continually changing. Moreover, according to relational process theory, knowledge is formed through the acts of receptivity and listening. Thus, as Bennett Hogg (forthcoming) notes, social justice and arts-based improvisatory practices must always be relational and ongoing. Justice can never be fixed or static; it must be responsive to changing social conditions and to the singularity of the situation. Similarly, it is the absence of a definitive “work” in (musical) improvisation that keeps the door constantly open for change and for the possibility of formulating new musics and ways of being with one another. Framing legal and artistic practice as process thereby opens up new perspectives towards conceptions of agency and change (Motzkau, 2011) and to new kinds of knowledge generation.
Dr Sara Ramshaw is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, School of Law. After receiving her B.A. (Honours) (With Distinction) from the University of Toronto, Sara obtained both a LLB and a LLM from the University of British Columbia. She then clerked at the Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) and was called to the Bar of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 2000. Sara worked as a Research Lawyer at the Superior Court of Justice, Family Court in Toronto before commencing postgraduate studies at Birkbeck School of Law in London, England. Sara’s doctoral thesis, completed in 2007, examined the legal regulation of jazz musicians in New York City (1940-1967) through the lens of poststructural theory informed by feminism, critical race theory and critical improvisation studies. During the 2008- 9 academic year, Sara was a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) project in Montreal. Her monograph, Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore was published by Routledge in 2013. More recently, Sara was the principal investigator of a large UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded project, entitled “Into the Key of Law: Transposing Musical Improvisation. The Case of Child Protection in Northern Ireland”.
Jesse Stewart – We Are All Musicians: Energizing Communities through Inclusive Music Making
Music is a fundamental human right, one that promotes freedom of expression and energizes communities at both an individual and community level. Therefore, everyone deserves to have opportunities to make music, regardless of their level of prior musical training, socio-economic circumstance, or level of physical and/or cognitive ability. This is the central idea animating the author’s “We Are All Musicians” (or WAAM) research-creation project. In order to realize this vision, the WAAM project has co-facilitated dozens of inclusive, improvisatory music workshops and performances using of a variety of ‘adaptive use’ music technologies in conjunction with more traditional musical instruments, focusing in particular on individuals and communities that have experienced barriers to making music historically.
The proposed paper presentation will discuss the WAAM project’s research objectives, questions, methodologies, technologies, and research outputs, focusing in particular on several collaborative musical projects with community partners including H’Art of Ottawa (which supports visual artists with intellectual disabilities); the Kidsability program in Guelph, Ontario (which supports children with special needs); Propeller Dance (a mixed abilities professional contemporary dance group in Ottawa); Regina Street Public School (a public school in a low-income area of Ottawa’s west end); and Discovery University (which provides free, non-credit university-level classes for adults living in low income situations).
I will discuss the ways in which the WAAM project has partnered with these organizations, using musical improvisation to negotiate various forms of difference in order to co-create a series of musical performances that explore improvisation’s capacity to foster vibrant, inclusive communities.
Jesse Stewart is a composer, percussionist, visual artist, researcher, and educator. His music has been documented on over twenty recordings including Stretch Orchestra’s self-titled debut album, which was honoured with the 2012 “Instrumental Album of the Year” Juno award. He has collaborated with such diverse artists as Pauline Oliveros, William Parker, Hamid Drake, David Mott, Michael Snow, and many others. His music has been performed at festivals throughout Canada, in Europe and in the United States and he has been widely commissioned as a composer and artist. His writings on jazz, hip hop, community music, new music, and improvisation have appeared in such journals as American Music, Black Music Research Journal, Contemporary Music Review, Intermedialities, Music and Arts in Action, and in numerous edited anthologies. He is presently authoring a book on jazz history and co- authoring (with Ajay Heble) a book on the pedagogy of musical improvisation. He is a professor of music in Carleton University’s School for Studies in Art and Culture and an adjunct professor in the Visual Arts program at the University of Ottawa. In 2013, he received Carleton University’s Marston LaFrance Research Fellowship, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ ”senior research award, intended for applicants with a very significant track record of outstanding research.” He has also received numerous teaching awards including a Carleton University Teaching Award, the university’s highest award for teaching excellence. In 2014, he was named to the Order of Ottawa, one of the city’s highest civic honours.
Marcel Swiboda – Contingent Comportments: Improvisational Modes of Being and Knowing in Music and Everyday Life
In his essay ‘Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction’, George Lewis states that ‘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.” This statement raises two important and related questions for proponents of critical improvisation studies to consider: firstly, the question of what relationships exist between skill-based instances of improvisatory practice, for example those of improvising musicians, and instances of improvisation pertaining to everyday lived experience; and secondly, the question of what role is to be played – if any – by philosophical and theoretical discourses and concepts, in helping to disclose these relationships.
The proposed presentation will begin to explore this two-fold line of inquiry into the discursive and conceptual exploration of improvisation as skilled practice and as lived experience, with a mind to informing existing debates in the burgeoning field of critical improvisation studies as regards the place of critical and philosophical inquiry in relation to improvisatory practice and, more broadly, to begin sounding the implications that the philosophy-improvisation conjuncture might have for the contemporary humanities – in particular with a mind to critically challenging the growing complacency surrounding the purported value of academic theorizing as it pertains to culture.
Rather than presuppose improvisation as a cultural ‘object’ to which theory is applied, instances of improvisatory practice – skilled and unskilled – will be taken as starting points for revisiting the critical approaches propounded by the first generation of British Cultural Studies exponents of the analysis of ‘culture as lived experience’ which, when treated seriously, still demand that philosophers and theorists attenuate their presuppositions regarding the presumed value of their own analytical discourses, with a mind to mobilizing critical and conceptual approaches to culture that are able to grasp it in its very ‘lived-ness’.
Taking an impetus from the work of these scholars and also from George Lewis’s appeals to phenomenology in his own work – implied here in his use of the German word ‘Haltung’, meaning ‘comportment’ – this presentation will consider several case-based instances of improvisational intentionality and intersubjectivity, skilled and unskilled. Far from seeking to impose these kinds of philosophical and critical terms and their attendant discourses onto improvisatory practice, improvisation’s contingent comportments will be shown to always already consist in modes of being and knowing that are themselves phenomenological and critically oriented.
Furthermore, these contingent comportments will be shown to challenge the prevailing assumptions often made by academic theorists regarding the intellectual provenance of ex post facto analyses of culture – problematic assumptions that beg more improvisationally-attuned approaches to philosophical thinking and theorizing regarding culture, requiring academics working in the humanities to attend far more carefully and seriously to improvisation as a facet of culture as ubiquitous as it is obscured: ‘everywhere, but […] very hard to see’ (George Lipsitz, cited in George Lewis ’).
Marcel Swiboda teaches Culture and Media Studies at the University of Leeds, UK. His main research interests reside at the intersections between philosophy, improvisation, lived culture and the practices of everyday life.
Cisco Bradley (Pratt Institute) – Pirate Radio and Bohemian Cafes: the Rise of the Williamsburg Scene in Brooklyn
This paper is part of a larger study of the rise of the Brooklyn jazz, improvised, experimental, and creative music scene since the late 1990s. Key clubs and artist lofts emerged in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in the late 1990s providing new spaces for a range of music that may be defined as left-of-jazz. This study examines the different spaces and environments where the music was created and the types of communities that centered on these spaces that helped shape the character of the artistic practice. Three types of spaces in particular gave rise to this new generation of music: Free103point9, a pirate radio station, a cluster of bohemian cafes that catered to the avant-garde, and numerous artist-run lofts where improvised music collided with other musical genres and art forms.
Free103point9 was founded by Tom Roe in 1997 and by the following year was holding a regular concert series featuring free jazz, noise, electronic music, and indie rock that were broadcast live or rebroadcast later to a local audience on a low-range transmitter. The radio station quickly became the focal point for artists who thrived in the lawless atmosphere of the Brooklyn waterfront where non-sanctioned venues gradually drew increasingly large crowds. Seen as a center for alternative culture, the space also became a place for a wide range of experimentalism and featured many key artists of the time: Gold Sparkle Band, Matthew Shipp, Daniel Carter, Ras Moshe, and many others. The space remained open until it was threatened with legal action in late 2004.
Bohemian hangouts like the Right Bank and the Read Café also fostered left-of-jazz in a way that interfaced with the public more directly, but each one had its own character. At the Right Bank, saxophonist and guitarist Seth Misterka ran a series of “avant-garde jazz and experimental music” from 2001 to 2003. Key figures such as Mary Halvorson, Mike Pride, and Jeff Arnal all emerged in this anything-goes atmosphere, where the owner gave them full control on how they presented themselves and their music. The Read Café was quite different, a small space lined with books and magazines, where the quiet minimalism of figures like Nate Wooley and the band Memorize the Sky first established themselves.
The loft scene allowed left-of-jazz to collide head on with rock and punk, as well as visual art, especially video projections and experiential, often psychedelic visual art. Running from 2000 until 2011, Newsonic Loft was one of the most influential spaces, regularly throwing “the best parties this side of the cosmos.” Newsonic typically booked four or five, mixing a wide array of genres, and ending with a DJ who spun records until 4 am. A great deal of rock-tinged improvised music emerged such as the band People, undefinable acts like Talibam! and various projects led by Misterka, Pride and others.
Francis (Cisco) Bradley is a scholar of social and cultural history set in diverse contexts. Throughout his career, his interests have settled on the historical agency exhibited by people marginalized by global or local forces who face myriad challenges including dislocation, cultural destruction, social alienation, or structural or physical violence. This has led him to investigate histories in a variety of contexts including port cities, mobile intellectual or artist communities, and inhabitants of maritime settings, where people are stitched together through viable, if vulnerable social networks of their own making.
Since settling in Brooklyn, Professor Bradley has added a new sub-field to his myriad interests, that of the history of avant garde jazz in Brooklyn. This project has led him to study the underbelly of New York City, gentrification, structural violence, and avant garde art forms and how they relate to a far-flung, diverse, globally-drawn community of artists and their social and cultural networks. His website www.jazzrightnow.com chronicles much of his work in this regard.
Rashida K. Braggs (Williams College) – Improvising Sidney Bechet’s Subjectivities
How does one play multiple subjectivities? This question persists on and beyond the pages of Rashida Braggs’s scholarship, in which she argues that Sidney Bechet manipulated his Creole French, American, and African descendant subjectivities to his own advantage. In order to be read in certain ways by the French, Bechet shifted between subjectivities to more successfully assimilate and rise to fame in post-WWII France. But even with the agency Bechet’s mixed heritage afforded, the limitations of racialization created obstacles. For others read race and ethnicity on his body in ways that counteracted his agency.
Attempting to stretch past the bounds of written scholarship, Rashida Braggs created a multi-disciplinary performance to extend her investigations of how one can perform national, racial and ethnic subjectivities as well as negotiate its limitations. With the solo performance “Me and Monsieur Bechet,” she explored the borders and blurring between Bechet’s and her own subjectivities. In improvised gestures and vocal interpretation, she performed a “hiccupping” and “kinesthetic stuttering” that deconstructed her musical, gestural and oral interpretations of Sidney Bechet. In each case, she drew on improvisation as a technique for moving outside of prescribed boundaries. In this presentation, Braggs will share key improvisatory moments from “Me and Monsieur Bechet” and analyze the productive possibilities of subjectivity making and breaking via improvised performance.
Rashida K. Braggs is Assistant Professor in Africana Studies and affiliate faculty in American Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College. With her background in performance studies, she consistently introduces a performative lens to African diasporic cultural expressions, from jazz to sports to mass media. Her book Jazz Diasporas: Race, Music and Migration in Post-World War II Paris (University of California Press 2016) analyzes music, literature, film, historical documents and ethnographic interviews in order to investigate the illusion of a color-blind Paris that seduced African American musicians, the strategies they used to thrive in Paris, and the transformations in personal identity that paralleled jazz’s own morphing identity from 1946-1963. Her courses such as 13 Ways of Looking at Jazz, Groovin’ the Written Word: The Role of Music in African American Literature, and Black Migrations: African American Performance at Home and Abroad teach students to explore ways that performance, though seemingly just entertainment, conveys much about a society’s values, patterns and negotiations of power. In addition to her scholarship and pedagogy, Dr. Braggs enjoys putting performance to practice by singing, dancing, acting, writing, slamming poetry, and playing multiple sports.
Edgar Landgraf (Bowling Green State University) – Recursivity and Improvisation: From Theory to Practice and Back
One of the fundamental lessons of poststructuralist thought (or French theory) is the recognition that our experiences and actions are always already guided by conscious and subconscious expectations which form as part of larger “discourses,” that is, that culture defines the concepts, values, perspectives, and hierarchies that inform what we think or how we value and perceive particular doings and hence also what we do. From this angle, theory is an attempt to reflect and contextualize the expectations that inform performers and audiences alike. Furthermore, theory can sharpen our understanding of the limits and pitfalls of existing concepts (e.g. the association of improvisation with freedom) and it can introduce new concepts that might help performer and audience understand and value differently their doings. While theory has to rely on data gathered from improvisers and the observation of improvisational doings, then, theory can also contribute and change over time how improvisers experience their doings. As we extend this logic, we may notice a feedback loop between theory and practice. As theory has to adapt to (learn from) changing practices, practices will also change based on changes in our understanding of practice, which in turn will become again the object of theoretizations, and so on.
In my paper I want to suggest that we understand the relation between theory and practice as a recursive process rather than an opposition. Attention to recursive processes is itself a haul mark of recent improvisation studies. The term allows us to break with the problematic binary between repetition and inventiveness (which continues to haunt improvisation studies) by suggesting a way to conceive inventiveness as the product of repetitive, iterative, and recursive doings. My talk will discuss not only recent contention in critical improvisation studies, but also use as an example the strangely iterative writing of Thomas Bernhard (Austria’s most important and most provocative writer of the second half of the twentieth century). Bernhard’s writing offers a wonderful example to study how iteration and recursivity can create highly innovative texts and how recursive techniques can render the distinction between theory (in the form of self-reflection) and practice productive.
Edgar Landgraf is Professor of German at Bowling Green State University. In addition to several articles on improvisation, his 2011 book Improvisation as Art. Conceptual Challenges, Historical Perspectives (reissued as paperback by Bloomsbury 2014) engages the most recent theoretical contentions surrounding improvisation in performance studies, deconstruction, and popular thought; and it offers a conceptual history, which challenges these contemporary assertions about improvisation by rethinking them alongside the evolution of modern aesthetics.
Tracy McMullen (Bowdoin College) – Jazz, Buddhism, and Race: Improvisation and Emptiness as Black Critical Praxis
Many successful African American jazz musicians have absorbed Buddhist practices. Some of them came to these for reasons of personal sustenance, others to improve their musicianship. But for those who committed themselves to Buddhism, the practice has become a central feature of their lives and work. In emphasizing the empty nature of being, Buddhism might seem to sidestep socio-political issues like racism and sexism. Yet according to the statements of many Buddhist musicians, the concept of emptiness offers insight into how to address racism and sexism and how to meaningfully communicate across perceived differences. My paper focuses on jazz pianist/composer and longtime Buddhist, Herbie Hancock, contextualizing his statements and work within the emerging history of African American Buddhism as a “Black critical praxis.” That is, Hancock has deployed the very practices of emptiness and “no self” to both develop as a performer and to address racism and other obstacles in his life. Linking the musical and spiritual to the political, I argue for the ways in which improvisation and the Buddhist concept of emptiness, perhaps counter- intuitively, support a meaningful and grounded relationship with the world for Hancock— indeed, a sense of agency within a postmodern world not characterized by such grounding.
Relatedly, I argue for the ways in which jazz improvisation and performance convey important information in ways other methods cannot. For example, Hancock was drawn to Buddhism by the musical performance of bassist Buster Williams, which the pianist described as conveying a deep meaning to him. I argue for the need to recognize how sonic communication carries crucial messages via jazz performance. By focusing on music, spirituality, and improvisation, I trouble dominant categories of thought that rely upon verbal and visual delineations and “objectivity.” Using Hancock’s statements on his development as an artist and person I seek to reclaim the subjective while arguing for the ways that improvisation and emptiness offer a manner of solidity to Hancock in a world still defined in terms of white supremacy.
Tracy McMullen is a cultural theorist, performer, and composer. Her interests include American music and culture; jazz; popular music; improvisation; musical performance and identity; cultural memory; and musical re-enactment. Her articles have appeared in the peer- reviewed Journal of Popular Music Studies, Current Musicology, and Critical Studies in Improvisation and in the edited volumes Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz
Studies; Sounding the Body: Improvisation, Representation and Subjectivity; People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now; The Encyclopedia of African American Music; The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies; and the Grove Dictionary of American Music.
Dr. McMullen’s manuscript-in-progress, Replay: Repetition, Identity, and the Fear of the Real (under review with NYU Press) examines the growth of live musical re-enactment in relation to postmodern anxieties about impermanence and intersubjectivity. Her second major project investigates improvisation as an alternative model for negotiating identity, suggesting a theorization of an improvisative, rather than a performative. Her courses include “History of Hip Hop,” “Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music,” “Music, Memory, and Identity,” and “Music in Everyday Life.”
As a jazz/experimental saxophonist, she has performed or recorded with David Borgo, George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Dana Reason, Mark Dresser, Pauline Oliveros, and many others and can be heard on the Cadence Jazz label.
Ellen Waterman – Improvisation, the body as resource, and group consciousness
Meditating on a recent artist-residency at the Institute for Music Aesthetics, University of Music and Research, in Graz, Austria, I consider what improvised musicking can teach us about embodiment and collectivity. My reflections draw on improvisations and conversations with pianist Deniz Peters and violinist Emma Lloyd in May 2016. Participating in Deniz Peters’ artistic research project on improvisation and emotion was transformative on several levels. As a flutist and vocalist, the sustained work of improvising, recording, reviewing, performing, and reflecting over ten intensive days stretched my musical imagination and abilities in collaborative improvisation. As a scholar who is deeply engaged in critical improvisation studies, I found the group consciousness that I achieved with pianist Deniz Peters and violinist Emma Lloyd to be revelatory. The process and performance of improvised musicking offers up rich material for analysis. Far exceeding the limits of formal musical analysis, this methodology reveals the extent to which musical, cultural, social, emotional, and embodied elements are entangled.
Ellen Waterman is both a music scholar and a flutist specializing in creative improvisation. Waterman’s interdisciplinary research interests range across improvisation, contemporary performance, gender, technology, ecomusicology, and acoustic ecology. With Gillian Siddall, she is co-editor of Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound and Subjectivity (Duke 2016). Her work on gender, sound, and technology includes a special issue of the journal Intersections: Journal of Canadian Music 26.2 (2006), co-edited with Andra McCartney. Her books on acoustic ecology and sound art include Sonic Geography Imagined and Remembered (2002) and The Art of Immersive Soundscapes (with Pauline Minevich, 2013). From 2010 to 2015 Waterman was dean of the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In 2015-16 she is on research leave as a Bye Fellow at Robinson College, University of Cambridge where she is writing a book on the ecology of experimental music performance based on her comparative ethnography of twelve experimental music festivals/venues across Canada.
Waterman’s distinctive musical practice blends flute and vocalization. She studied flute with Jan Kocman, Douglas Stewart, and John Fonville and voice with Carol Plantamura. In the 1980s and ‘90s she performed in a number of R. Murray Schafer’s Patria series of environmental music theatre works and he composed the solo flute pieces Aubade, and Nocturne (1996) for her. Her doctoral dissertation is an ethnography of Patria the Epilogue: And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon. Waterman has been privileged to work with an array of great improvisers including, Pauline Oliveros, Jesse Stewart, Ione, Eric Lewis, James Harley, Medea Electronique collective, Chris Chafe, Viv Corringham, Norman Adams, George Lewis, Nicole Mitchell, Miya Masaoka, Malcolm Goldstein, Jean Derome, Joane Hétu, Lori Freedman, Michael Waterman, and Michael Young. She has performed at national and international festivals and venues including Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, the Guelph Jazz Festival, the Suoni Per Il Popolo, and the Onassis Cultural Centre. Waterman has also been artist-in-residence for several festivals, including The Art of Immersive Soundscapes (U. Regina), Sound Travels Festival (Toronto), and the Chicago Creative Music Workshop (Chicago Jazz Festival). In 2014 she participated in the Koumaria Residency in Sellasia, Greece.