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Improvisation and History Colloquium 2011

On Monday, November 14, 2011 nine invited scholars from a variety of disciplines gathered together to present on and discuss improvisation and its relationship to history and the past. This day-long conference featured keynote lectures by Danielle Goldman (Assistant Professor of Dance at the New School and author of I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom), eminent scholar and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha (UC Berkeley); and scholar, composer, improviser, and MacArthur Fellow George Lewis (Columbia University). The conference was capped with a performance of improvised music by renowned improviser and composer Pauline Oliveros (digitally enhanced accordion) with Tracy McMullen on saxophone.

The papers covered a wide variety of topics dealing with improvisation, the past, history, memory, and political action. McMullen opened the conference by suggesting the need to distinguish between “the past” and “history” and their consequent relationship to improvisation, habit, and narrative. Oliveros played a recording of an improvisation between herself, Terry Riley, and Loren Rush recorded in 1957. As far as she knows, this was the first recording of a completely free improvisation in the genre of Western Art Music. In examining memories of the Hollywood Canteen during WWII, Sherrie Tucker thought about memory itself as a form improvisation. In a further investigation of memory practices, Goldman’s keynote investigated Ishmael Houston-Jones’s 2010 re-performance of THEM (1986)—his dance piece in response to the AIDS crisis in the gay community—and the ramifications of re-performing such a historically situated, live work in a new era and with aging (and newly added young) bodies.

Trinh spoke of the improvisatory aspects of the Tibetan struggle for independence. While China seems bent on portraying the struggle as one headed by the Dalai Lama (a claim accepted as specious by the international community), Trinh points out that the acts are generally contingent, spontaneous, and without a central leadership. This idea of protest as improvisatory returned later in the day as discussion turned toward the improvisatory aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Occupy movement has been criticized as leaderless and diffuse in its aims. For many, however, this is the precise strength of the movement and may point to how improvisation is a better hermeneutic for understanding how protest operates today. Further, Wong’s discussion of how police improvise elicited more discussion on the importance of reacting to specific circumstances rather than following procedure that may have lethal consequences.

Participants and attendees were grateful for the intellectual and personal connections made. This conference helped to further the investigation into how improvisation offers a useful hermeneutic for understanding many of our present actions (be they political, corporeal, artistic, or conceptual) in relation to our past and future.

Tracy McMullen
Provost's Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities
Department of Musicology
USC Thornton School of Music


Improvisation and History
November 14, 2011 University of California, Riverside
8:30 am - 10:00 pm

In this one-day colloquium Plenary speakers Trinh T. Minh-ha and George Lewis join keynote speaker Danielle Goldman and panelists Sherrie Tucker, Pauline Oliveros, Deborah Wong, Anthea Kraut, Jayna Brown, and Tracy McMullen to engage with the following question: What is the relationship of improvisation to history and the past?

This one-day conference invites key scholars in the growing field of critical improvisation studies to investigate an important issue in improvisation as a social practice and as a potential site of progressive social change: the relationship of improvisation to history. Descriptions of improvisation as “in-the-moment,” “spontaneous,” and as a type of “flow,” can suggest that the "weight of history" is suspended in some way. We will deliberately push at the theory/praxis binary and will challenge prevailing models in improvisation theory by troubling the eternal (ethnographic), ahistorical present assumed by many scholars.

This conference builds on co-organizer Deborah Wong’s and Tracy McMullen’s current research and will draw together a select number of leading critical thinker-practitioners in improvisation studies from music, dance, Ethnic Studies, performance studies, history, and postcolonial studies. The event will combine CIS resources with SSHRC funding from the “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” (ICASP) research initiative, for which the co-organizers serve as research team members. Our conference is a focused, rhizomatic extension of the ICASP project but is meant to be a stand-alone critical event that will allow us to (1) focus on the problem of improvisation and the past and (2) to draw UCR’s impressive community of performance scholars into conversation with leading scholar-practitioners of improvisation.

8:30 to 9:00 am: Arrival and continental breakfast.
9:00 to 11:00 am | Panel One: Papers on conference theme
Tracy McMullen: Introduction
Tracy McMullen: The Improvisative

Sherrie Tucker: Improvisation at the Hollywood Canteen
Pauline Oliveros: Improvisation and Identity
11:00 to 12:00 noon Plenary Session with Trinh T. Minh-ha.
12:00 to 1:00 pm Lunch

1:00 to 2:00 pm Keynote by Dr. Danielle Goldman: Our keynote speaker, Danielle Goldman will speak on a new project on “THEM,” a dance work that premiered at New York's PS 122 in 1986 and was recently "revived" for a performance in the same space in October 2010. Featuring text by Dennis Cooper, music by Chris Cochrane, and dancing by seven male performers, the piece is often cited as one of the earliest performance art responses to the AIDS crisis. Goldman describes it as “a visceral, gritty, vital work consisting entirely of scored improvisations.” Goldman is concerned with what it means to “redo” a piece that was so clearly and urgently grounded in a specific time and place, and danced with very specific bodies. What does it mean to “revive” or “reconstruct” a work of this nature, given that it was highly improvisational? She will investigate how the improvisational techniques of the recent cast of dancers resemble and/or differ from the ways in which the original cast approached improvisation. Interestingly, Cochrane, Cooper, and Houston Jones were in both versions, and their bodies testified in a way to an earlier era. Her investigations into this improvised "revival," including its intergenerational approaches to improvisation, and the participation of aging and ailing bodies (another way to think about the body's past) explore the themes we will investigate in this conference.

2:15 to 3:45 pm: Respondents to Keynote and Discussion Panel

Deborah Wong: Introduction
Anthea Kraut: respondent
Jayna Brown: respondent
Sherrie Tucker
Tracy McMullen
Pauline Oliveros
George Lewis

4:00 to 5:00 pm Plenary Session with George Lewis: Improvisation, Spontaneity, and History

5:00 to 8:00 pm Dinner Break

8:00 to 10:00 pm Performance by Tracy McMullen (saxophone and percussion), Pauline Oliveros (Accordion and electronics), and Danielle Goldman (dance).

Keynote Speaker, Danielle Goldman, Assistant Professor, The New School. Danielle Goldman is Assistant Professor of Dance History and Theory at The New School. She has published articles in Dance Research, Dance Research Journal, Etcetera, Movement Research Performance Journal, TDR:The Drama Review, and Women & Performance. She recently published a book about the politics of improvised dance, I Want to be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom. She also is a dancer in New York City, where she recently has worked with choreographers DD Dorvillier and Beth Gill. Plenary Speaker, George Lewis serves as the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, an Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work as composer and improviser includes electronic and computer music, computer-based installations, and notated and improvisative forms, and is documented on more than 130 recordings. His published articles on music, experimental video, visual art, and cultural studies have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and edited volumes, and his widely acclaimed book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008), is a recipient of the American Book Award, the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award, and an Award for Excellence in Recorded Sound Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. With Ben Piekut, he is editing the upcoming Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Vols. 1&2 for Oxford University Press.

Plenary Speaker, Trinh T. Minh-ha has taught in the Gender and Women's Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley since 1994 and in the Department of Rhetoric since 1997. She has also taught at Harvard, Smith, Cornell, San Francisco State University, the University of Illinois, Ochanomizu University in Japan and the National Conservatory of Music in Senegal. Originally trained as a musical composer, Trinh received her two Masters and Ph.D. from University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and is a world-renowned independent filmmaker and feminist, post-colonial theorist. She teaches courses that focuses on women's work as related to cultural politics, postcoloniality, contemporary critical theory and the arts. The seminars she offers focus on Third cinema, film theory and aesthetics, the voice in cinema, the autobiographical voice, critical theory and research, cultural politics and feminist theory. Aside from the eight books she has published, her work also includes two large-scale multimedia installations and six feature-length films that have been honored in twenty seven retrospectives around the world: Reassemblage (1982), Naked Spaces (1985), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Shoot for the Contents (1991), A Tale of Love (1996), The Fourth Dimension (2001), and Night Passage (2004).


Sherrie Tucker is Associate Professor in American Studies at University of Kansas. She is the author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s (Duke, 2000) and co-editor, with Nichole T. Rustin, of Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies (Duke, 2008). She is currently completing a book entitled Dance Floor Democracy: the Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen. Her articles on jazz and gender have appeared in journals, including American Music, Black Music Research Journal, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Current Musicology, Jazz Perspectives, and Women and Music: a Journal of Gender and Culture, and edited volumes, including Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby (eds), African American Music: A History (Routledge, 2006); Ajay Heble and Daniel Fischlin (eds), The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue (Wesleyan, 2004); Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell (eds), Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity (University of Illinois, 2002); and Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois (eds), Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History (Routledge, 2000). She is a member of the “Improvisation, Gender, and the Body” team for Ajay Heble’s Collaborative Research Initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, entitled, "Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice." She is co-editor of the journal American Studies, with David Katzman and Randal M. Jelks. She was the 2004-2005 Louis Armstrong Professor at the Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University. Pauline Oliveros is acclaimed internationally as a composer, performer and humanitarian. An important pioneer in American Music, she has explored sound for five decades, forging new ground for herself and others. She was the first Director of the Center for Contemporary Music (formerly the Tape Music Center at Mills College), and she was Director of the Center for Music Experiment during her 14 year tenure as professor of music at the University of California at San Diego. Whether performing at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., in an underground cavern, or in the studios of West German Radio, Oliveros' commitment to interaction with the moment is unchanged. Through Deep Listening Pieces and earlier Sonic Meditations Oliveros introduced the concept of incorporating all environmental sounds into musical performance through listening. She now serves as Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Darius Milhaud Composer in Residence at Mills College and mentor in the Bard College summer MFA program.

Jayna Brown (Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, UCR) researches performance and culture in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Diaspora, with a focus on vernacular expressive forms and the body. She earned her Ph.D. at Yale University's African American Studies Department, and she was awarded dissertation and postdoctoral Ford Foundation Fellowships as well as a Rockefeller Award for the Study of Black Culture at the Stanford Humanities Center. Her book, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Modern Body (Duke University Press, 2008) won both the Errol Hill best book award from the American Society for Theatre Research and the George Freedley award from the Theater Library Association.

Deborah Wong is an ethnomusicologist and Professor of Music at UCR. She has written two books. Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music (Routledge, 2004) focuses on music, race, and identity work in a series of case studies (Southeast Asian immigrant musics, Chinese American and Japanese American jazz in the Bay Area, and Asian American hip-hop), and Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Ritual (Chicago University Press, 2001) addresses the postlife of court music in Bangkok. Her book in progress addresses Japanese American drumming (taiko) in Southern California and focuses on ethnicity, improvisation, and Asian American responses to corporate multiculturalism. She recently served as President of the Society for Ethnomusicology (2007-09). Tracy McMullen is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. in Music from UC San Diego and in 2007-2008 was a Postdoctoral fellow with the “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” research initiative at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She was a faculty member in the Music and the Gender & Women’s Studies departments and a resident fellow with the Beatrice Bain Research Group at UC Berkeley from 2009 to 2011. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Current Musicology; Critical Studies in Improvisation; Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies; People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz is Now; Sounding the Body: Improvisation, Representation and Subjectivity; The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies; The Dictionary of African American Music; and The Grove Dictionary of American Music. As a saxophonist in the jazz and improvised music traditions she has recorded on the Cadence jazz label and numerous other independent labels and maintains an active performance schedule.

Anthea Kraut’s research (Associate Professor of Dance, UCR) addresses the interconnections between American performance and cultural history and the raced and gendered dancing body. Her first book, Choreographing the Folk: The Dance Stagings of Zora Neale Hurston (2008), recovers the history of Hurston's staging of black diasporic folk dance, traces the influence of her choreography throughout the 1930s, and illuminates the often contested place of the black vernacular in American culture more broadly. Her current research explores the history and cultural politics of copyright in American dance. Kraut's teaching interests include American and African American dance history, critical race theory, and methods and theories.

This colloquium is free and open to the public

Sponsored by the "Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice" Research Initiative and the UCR "Center for Ideas and Society"

Contact Tracy McMullen for more information at

Download colloquium poster here

There is a curious yet enormously fruitful duality in the way that improvisation plays on our expectations and perspectives.

– Tracey Nicholls