Summer Institute Fosters Improvisational Encounter and Social Virtuosity

Jesse Stewart and class prepare a remix of St. John’s 2014 Sound Symposium using a reactable. Photo: Frederique Arroyas

The 2014 Summer Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation was held June 29 to July 12 at Memorial University’s School of Music. The institute was integrated with The Sound Symposium, St. John’s Festival of New Music and the Arts.

More than 30 participants gathered to theorize, critique, and practice improvisation and arts-based research. This included musicians, storytellers, actors, anthropologists, philosophers, and educators. It was an immersion experience into beautiful sounds, thoughtful people, and generative, interdisciplinary confusion. Our collective questioning of the fundamental ideas that brought us together took place in an environment buzzing with animated rigour that didn’t cut improvisation or arts-based research any slack. It was a fresh, living encounter, tingling with the excitement of multiple approaches elegantly colliding.

Storytelling panel at the Forum on Improvisation as Practice Based Research. Carolyn Chong, Waged Jafer, Kathe Gray, Gabriela Sanchez Diaz, Hadi Milanloo, Leila Qashu. Photo: Frederique Arroyas

Professor Jesse Stewart guided us through a generative and creative experience. In addition to a college seminar format, the institute was organized around the processes of creating a group scholarly forum and a collectively improvised Sound Symposium performance. These multiple formats helped us realize a sensibility of finding comfort in the uncomfortable, or, as participant Kimber Sider put it, “remaining open to the experiences that the experienced hide from.” It was a fresh improvisational space where co-learners reached beyond narrow silos of expertise. During a striking vocal workshop that he led at the institute, Chris Tonelli used a phrase from improviser Maggie Nicols that, for me, speaks to the institute as a whole. Although intellectual and artistic virtuosity were in abundance, it was the space of “cultivating social virtuosity” that defined the experience.

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