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Improv Notes: July 2015
International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation logo.
Improv Notes is a monthly newsletter distributed by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation.
Reminder: IICSI-MUN Colloquium & Call for Papers
Improvisation as Intercultural Contact and Dialogue is the title of the upcoming colloquium at Memorial University of Newfound in St. John's, July 6-8, 2016. The colloquium will explore and critique concepts of interculturality that, although forwarded as processes for peace (UNESCO) might also be seen as techniques for "cultural management." 

The colloquium takes place during the 18th Sound Symposium festival of new music and sound. The Call For Papers deadline is February 15, 2016); for more information, please see the event's Facebook page.
"If you have to ask"
"If you have to ask": The Cultural, Cognitive, and Neural Underpinnings of Improvisatory Behavior in the Arts and Beyond
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
May 27-28, 2016

Louis Armstrong famously said that if you have to ask what improvisation is, you’ll never know. The time has come to ask, but what precisely is the question, or questions, and how are they best addressed?
This conference aims to bring together neuroscientists, psychologists, music cognition specialists, anthropologists, social scientists, scholars of creativity, improvising artists across art-forms, and scholars of improvisation, all directed towards understanding how minds-in-bodies-in-cultures interact to produce improvisatory gestures and acts often rich with social, communicative, political, aesthetic, interpersonal and cognitive meaning and value.  
Submissions are due by February 20th and should be sent to Eric Lewis:

For the full call for papers, please visit the IICSI website.
Open Waters Festival, Halifax
Amy Brandon

The annual Open Waters Festival of new and improvised music took place January 7-10 at Sir James Dunn Theatre, the Atlantica Hotel, the Central Library, and The Company House in Halifax. Hamilton’s Cem Zafir, of zulapresents, attended the festival and writes:

“The programming by the Upstream Music Association’s new artistic director, double bassist Lukas Pearse, was remarkable in its breadth, bringing to the fore improvisation as a thread in the classical, new music, experimental, jazz-based, song, poetry, dance, and world traditions. I would, personally, not have been opposed to some non-Canadian artists, but we all know the necessity for strengthening Canadian music, and Open Waters champions it to great effect.

"The blend of the symphony and Upstream personnel, with some great overlaps, worked wonderfully (Symphony Nova Scotia collaborated with the Upstream Orchestra to play works by Paul Cram, Barry Guy and Jeff Reilly, conducted by Reilly and by Gary Kulesha), and the Witch Gong Game night was especially fun. Friday night started with guitarist Amy Brandon’s contemplative music paired with images of special objects, and the thoughtful and inventive duo of Arthur Bull (guitar) and Norm Adams (cello). Pierre Tanguay & Pierre Labbé’s Sacré Tympan was fun. Though the Dunn Theatre sounds wonderful, a smaller venue may have added to the intimacy of this particular night.

“The student performances were impressive, interesting and hope-inducing, and Ellen Waterman’s Improvisation Talk Back (an initiative of IICSI and the Guelph Jazz Festival), featuring improvisers in dialogue with their audience, resulted in a performance and chat that were especially strong and thought provoking. Musical highlights included an understated, beautifully restrained performance from Toronto's Cluttertones (Rob Clutton / Lina Allemano / Tim Posgate / Ryan Driver), Vancouver’s Birds of Paradox (Ron Samworth / Lan Tung / Neelamjit Dhillon) joined by Lukas Pearse—who really made the audience feel special, with a kind of sonic camaraderie among musical traditions with invisible borders—and a Haligonian duo, percussionist Doug Cameron & dancer Jacinte Armstrong; two of the unexpected delights for me, as they transformed the new public library into a multidimensional playground. Jerome Blais’s multimedia tribute to folklorist Marius Barbeau, (Un)Forgotten Voices, featuring soprano Janice Jackson, was mesmerizing, a much appreciated piece of Canadiana performed with humanity and grace. Geordie Haley’s “Open Company” night of imaginative ad hoc groups had some very high moments in a friendly, comfortable venue; Tim Crofts and Lan Tung’s performance stood out in particular. The Original Folk Trio with Andrew MacKelvie saxophones, Casey Thompson bass, and Brendan Melchin drums were a load of fun… watch out for Andrew MacKelvie!

“I must thank Lukas and crew for bringing such kindred spirits together both on and off stage, and for being the fulcrum for vital future creative activity nationally.”

Cem Zafir is the artistic director of Zula Music & Arts Collective Hamilton in Hamilton, Ontario; the projected schedule for this winter includes Linsey Wellman / Bennett / Lee Palmer trio (Feb. 6), the Sonoluminescence Trio of William Parker, David Mott, Jesse Stewart (March 20), and Michael Vlatkovitch (Mar. 31). 
Artist of the Month: Paul Bley (1932-2015)

Dave Pike, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Don Francks, Dave Quarin, Ken Hole, outside The Cellar, Vancouver, 1956/57. 

Canadian jazz artist Paul Bley, who died January 3 at the age of 83, was an improvising pianist, and proudly so. “In jazz, the composers were generally inept pianists,” he said with characteristic humour in his 1999 autobiography Stopping Time, “which is why they had to become composers. In short, a composer is just somebody who can’t play in real time.”
Born in Montreal in 1932, Bley was a true prodigy in the city’s busy live music scene, leading ensembles of adult players by the time he was in his early teens. In the early 1950s, he was one of the founders of the Jazz Workshop, which gave him first-hand experience playing with American jazz artists, including Charlie Parker, and in 1953 he moved to New York City and never looked back. A residency in Los Angeles in 1959, with his first wife composer/arranger Carla Bley (née Borg), exposed him to the music of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, and he returned to New York with a greater appreciation of the many possible improvisational premises that music has to offer. After playing in the groundbreaking Jimmy Giuffre Trio with clarinetist Giuffre and Steve Swallow, as well as with Charles Mingus, Don Ellis and Sonny Rollins, in 1964 he was a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Guild with Bill Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Mike Mantler and others. Later in the decade, with his second wife singer/composer Annette Peacock, he pioneered  the use of the Moog synthesizer in a jazz setting.

In the 1970s, even as he and his third wife, video artist Carol Goss, founded the Improvising Artists record and video label, Paul Bley launched a long career playing solo piano, and continued to record prolifically. “Improvising is really a snapshot of who you are the month you make the record. In that snapshot, as in all snapshots, you never look the same as you did last year. When I go onstage to play solo, I don’t get stuck. I can play for an hour, an hour and a half, with a repertoire or without a repertoire. I have so much to draw upon now that I really don’t worry about it.” Bley’s work influenced several generations of improvisers, especially pianists such as Keith Jarrett. He was featured in the 1981 documentary Imagine The Sound, and a 2008 radio interview with fellow pianist Renee Rosnes is accessible on the CBC’s website.

International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation LogoThe International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation
(IICSI) is a partnered research institute building from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) project, “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” (ICASP).

The Institute’s research team is comprised of 58 scholars from 20 different institutions. IICSI's partners include six academic institutions (University of Guelph; McGill University; Memorial University of Newfoundland; University of British Columbia; University of Regina; University of California, Santa Barbara), a foundation partner (Musagetes), and over 30 community-based organizations. The Institute's mandate is to create positive social change through the confluence of improvisational arts, innovative scholarship, and collaborative action.
Jazzing the Data
Jazzing the Data - Jazz Discographies in the Digital Age takes place at McGill University on Friday, January 29. Organized by the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies J-Disc task force, in partnership with IICSI, the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, and the Schulich School of Music, a group of leading scholars in jazz discographies, Music Information Retrieval (MIR) and jazz studies will discuss possible futures for jazz discographies.

Full and accurate discographies form the most basic research data for those investigating jazz and its legacy. But what constitutes a discography—what should it contain, and/or omit? How can it best serve its potential users? How does it in and of itself shape the nature of jazz research? Who and what should be included in an inclusive jazz discography? When is a seemingly “neutral decision” actually anything but—and, in our digital age, how should the traditional text-based information a discography contains be enriched via relations to the recorded artifact itself, in all its forms, and with its assorted historical, cultural, social, and political significance? How can and should MIR developments be used to extract information from such a discography, and what information need it contain in order to best facilitate present, and imaginable future, use by MIR technologies?

Participants include Krin Gabbard, Lisa Barg and David Brackett, John Szwed, Laura Risk, Gabriel Solis, Tad Shull, Cynthia Leive and Robert O'Meally. The colloquium takes place from 9-4 in A832/833, Elizabeth Wirth Music Building, 527 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal.
Breathturns: Improvisation and Freedom 

Vancouver, June 25-26, 2016
The International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation and Coastal Jazz & Blues Society invite proposals for papers and presentations for our eighth colloquium in Vancouver, British Columbia—Breathturns: Improvisation and Freedom. The colloquium will take place during the opening weekend of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival at the downtown campus of the University of British Columbia, and will feature as keynote speakers several world-renowned improvisers who are performing at the festival.

We are inviting proposals for 20-minute presentations from artists, academics and community members. Proposals for panels would be welcome, and we are interested in supporting various forms of interdisciplinary, practice-based research. This year, the colloquium will focus on the relationships between improvisation and freedom. How do improvisational practices in the arts challenge our limits? How do liberation and spontaneity intersect? How do collective actions negotiate with individualities? 

Proposals no longer than 200 words should be submitted by email on or before March 1, 2016 to Dr. Kevin McNeilly:

View the full call for papers online!
Mexico City: To Improvise in Atrocious Times
Improvisar En Tiempos Atroces (To Improvise in Atrocious Times) is the title of the 20th international symposium of Mexico City’s Institute of Critical Studies, January 13-16 at Biblioteca Vasconcelos (Buenavista). Covering topics of international violence, unrest, protest, and surveillance, the symposium will query, among other things, “how improvisation is not antithetical to the law but perhaps its fullest exercise … Might there be an ethic of improvisation? And an (infra)politics of improvisation?” The symposium features performances by Janice Misurell-Mitchell (USA) and Vyacheslav Ganelin (Russia / Lithuania / Israel). Thanks to Alain Derbez and Ana Ruiz for alerting us to this important international event!
Canada's Latest Poet Laureate

Toronto poet George Elliott Clarke has been appointed Canada's new parliamentary poet laureate. The poet laureate is asked to write poems "especially for use in Parliament on important occasions," sponsor readings, and advise the Parliamentary Librarian regarding acquisitions. The two-year position, created in 2002, has previously been held by George Bowering, Pauline Michel, John Steffler, Pierre DesRuisseaux, Fred Wah, and Michel Pleau.

Clarke’s 2003 play Québécité began as a jazz libretto commissioned by the Guelph Jazz Festival, and performed in 2003, directed by Colin Jackson with music by D.D. Jackson. In 2012 ICASP and the TransCanada Institute presented George Elliott Clarke reading from his poetry collection Red, accompanied by bassist David Lee. A video of the performance, and a recording of the interview that followed is available here.
It Wasn't Anything. I Was Just Improvising.
Dana Andrews, Alice Faye. Fallen Angel (1945), directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by Harry Kleiner from the novel by Marty Holland. 
The response from readers was enthusiastic when, in the March 2015 Improv Notes, we described a sequence from the 1945 film House of Dracula that offered a unique context for the classical tradition of keyboard improvisation. This has encouraged us to continue to investigate Hollywood films, centring in the 1940s, when we find a recurring cinematic trope in which keyboard improvisation is directly linked to female agency. In House of Dracula, the pianist (played by Martha O'Driscoll) asserts her identity by playing Beethoven, although her ability to do so is threatened by Dracula’s hypnotic power.
In this clip from Fallen Angel, also 1945, itinerant con man Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), marooned in a small town on the California coast, sets out to seduce and marry the shy, reclusive June Mills (played by popular singer/actress Alice Faye) so that he can use her money to abscond with the alluring Stella (Linda Darnell), who works as a waitress in a beachfront diner. Approaching June when she is practicing alone in church, Eric exerts his charm to the fullest, but the seduction gets off to a shaky start thanks to his bogus assertion of musical knowledge, and to June’s unexpected reserve of personal resourcefulness. Indeed June’s facility in keyboard improvisation foreshadows, later in the film, her ability to adapt to changing circumstances in order to get what she wants.

Eric:  Very good performance, Miss Mills. Please go on. Beethoven never sounded so good before.
June: I wasn’t playing Beethoven.
Eric: No? Why sure, it was Brahms! The old boys do sound alike, don’t they? I mean in spots …
June: What “spots”?
Eric: You know: the way they begin, the way they end—sometimes in the middle, like the piece you were just playing, Brahms, uh …
June: It wasn’t anything. I was just improvising.
Eric: Well if Brahms didn’t write that, you went him one better!
Quote of the Month: Improvisation & Hockey

“The average practice? It's a series of drills, designed to be executed the same way, over and over again, like a musician practicing scales. Some coaches have lots of complex drills up their sleeves, others rely on old standards. But the end result is the same: the kids are all trained to play essentially the same way. When is there time for improvisation?”

--Grant Gordon, “The Hockey-Industrial Complex Is Failing Canada's Young Players”
Improv Notes

Improv Notes was initially distributed in 2008 as a quarterly newsletter. From June 2011 until September 2014 Improv Notes was assembled, written, and distributed on a monthly basis by Paul Watkins. As of October 2014, Improv Notes is edited and written by PhD candidate David Lee and assembled by administrative assistant Rachel Collins. If you have anything improvisation related that you would like included in the newsletter, please send an email to

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