Outdoors on the porch of her apartment, on a hot afternoon, Karen Ng flips her saxophone.
She curls up in a few impromptu minutes with her viola, serving improvised all kinds of fragmented jazz lines transforming into chime tones, then into puffs of reed noise. Josh Cole, leaning over his double bass, accompanies him to the fingerboard, adding a crackle of bass droplets.
The game is intimate. Behind us is the vast expanse of western Toronto, rows of courtyards and leafy lanes stretching out to the horizon. Ng and Cole later discuss the mechanics of what they played. But as a listener, you just have to follow their pure improvisations, to hear them drift towards the city and all the thoughts they evoke by association.
There is no end to theorizing about perfect moments of musical improvisation like this. As critic Ralph Gleason wrote (in the backing notes to Miles Davis’ LP Girls of Kilimanjaro), “When it’s right, it takes great strength to leave because you have the overwhelming feeling every moment that more surprises and delights are coming.”
Yet beyond the critiques and theories about how improvisation works, there is a growing movement in academia that views artistic improvisation as a guide for all life improvisations, even broader societal progress. . The University of Guelph is considered a leading center in this regard with its International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, which brings together an international team of researchers and partners with community organizations to examine the arts as a spark of social change.
“What sets us apart is that we view musical improvisation and other forms of artistic improvisation as models of social practice… thinking about what we can learn from the arts and music in particular. “said Ajay Heble, professor at the School of English and Theater Studies and director of the institute. He is also a key figure in experimental music himself as the founder and longtime former artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which runs this week through September 19.
The institute collects and highlights research that helps us better understand improvisation as a social phenomenon that has real-world implications beyond the creative realm. The way musicians and artists communicate and take risks applies to many other professions and situations – Heble said the institute is now broadening its approach by studying how improvisation works in engineering, science. natural, environmental sciences and other fields.
“If there has ever been a time in our history that demands that we know how to improvise, maybe this is it,” Heble said, noting a Financial Times article by author Arundhati Roy in which she describe pandemics as a portal for change.
The bandstand (or Ng’s porch) as a microcosm of society is an easy metaphor – a model of cooperation that brings a group to the brink of chaos and vice versa. It is an endless topic among the musicians themselves, almost to the point of distracting them. “We were hanging out at the studio last night and we were like, ‘Why are we still talking about this? “” Ng said with a laugh.
As for a definition of improvisational music and the stage that goes with it, Cole breaks it down as follows: If music still has some sort of time signature, it’s free jazz. If there is no sense of time, it is improvisational music.
Research and analysis by academics around the world sometimes portrays improvisation as a form of conflict resolution – the thought goes that improvisation frees someone to explore possibilities and provides flexibility of thought, two essentials. problem solving. Yet the Guelph Institute’s focus is not on music as a substitute for organizational behavior or politics.
Instead, it examines person-to-person cooperation, dialogue, and a kind of mutual affirmation that exists in artistic practices. For George Lipsitz, professor-researcher emeritus of Black studies and sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and figurehead in this field, it is also about “people without resources having to be resourceful. If you can’t predict or expect what’s going to happen, you have to be prepared to improvise.
For her part, Ng aims to connect people and build relationships – not only in avant-garde circles, but also on tour with various rock groups and with singer-songwriters who tend to gravitate towards them. towards the improvisation scene, as the singer-songwriter from Toronto. Tamara Lindeman, who plays The Weather Station.
“Especially with something like improv, where you don’t necessarily draw on repertoire or vocabulary, it’s more about personalities,” said Ng, who is also artistic director and deputy general manager of the Guelph Jazz Festival, favoring artistic pollination between Guelph and Toronto.
Trumpeter Lina Allemano, who divides her time between Toronto and Berlin, describes her approach differently. She creates from a deep listening point. “If this is a really improvised piece, for example, then I want to try to balance the support for the music and the other musicians and then initiate [an improvised part] when or if necessary. And it’s kind of a difficult balancing act.
Brodie West, an equally important saxophonist in the scene, performs regularly with Allemano and Ng. (In fact, the musicians of the Toronto improv scene all perform in each other’s bands and on each other’s recordings, making it a tight and rewarding community.) Still, he talks about not overdoing it. rely on other musicians to provide a safety net if the music starts to crumble, but confronts the situation with some boldness – even humor. He used this approach as a parent, he said, including teaching his son as he came home from school during the pandemic.
The use of improvisation as a social model, however, is complicated by the need for music from a willing audience. If the audience expects live jazz and musicians perform avant-garde sound art, some outcome is inevitable. The public come to hear Autumn leaves remains puzzled. Musicians feel like Martians. Ng and the others were all there, walking around with the tip pot and asked, “What was that?” this? “
In music, as in life, the audience can have a different vibe, but they can be moved, Heble said. “There might be this assumption that if people are going to find the music difficult or difficult, they won’t want to hear it, but it’s really a matter of context.”
At the Guelph Festival, it will bring together musicians from totally different backgrounds – Ethiopia, Mali, Mexico, Canada – speaking no common language, and sometimes barely a common musical language.
“They were playing fair and they were listening to each other. And they created absolutely wonderful music, ”Heble said. “What does this tell us about what it means to negotiate differences in the context of a community? What does it tell us to really listen to what’s going on around us? What does it tell us about trust, about social obligation? These are really deep social issues.
The criticism of improvisation in art can often go very far. It has been argued that real improvisation should never be recorded, but heard only once. Or, as Ng noted with rolling his eyes, there’s the idea that improvisers should only play with musicians they don’t know. Allemano points to the Echtzeitmusik movement in Berlin, which eschews traditional notes for clever noise.
Yet improvisation can be any of these things, or none of them. It depends on the intentions of the performers and the audience. Improvisation is never fair no matter.
“People think improvisation just works without rules and works on impulse. But really, most people who use improvisation know that spontaneity takes a lot of preparation and that you have to be prepared to improvise, ”said Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbara.
And it ultimately illustrates the most elegant of all aspects of improvisation. Whatever how-to guides you use, whatever personal and collective stories you hold as you improvise, “it’s not just something you make up on the spot,” Heble said.
Karen Ng performs at the Guelph Jazz Festival on September 18 with the Rob Clutton Trio, while Brodie West is also at the festival on September 17-18 as part of the Rebirth set, playing the 1968 classic Far East Suite.
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