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Improv Notes: August 2014


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IMprov Notes:
News of the Moment       August 2014

Summer Institute Fosters Improvisational Encounter and Social Virtuosity 
By George Blake

​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.

Jesse Stewart and class prepare a remix of St. John's 2014 Sound Symposium using a reactable. 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.


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


Oral Histories is a showcase of interviews, performances, and articles by and about improvising musicians, artists, writers and scholars.

Dong-Won Kim

Photo by Paul Watkins

Dong-Won Kim is a Korean percussionist, pedagogue, vocalist, composer, and improviser. Since 1984, he has studied various forms of traditional music, ranging from farmers’ drumming and dance, shaman music, and Pansori accompaniment, as well as music theory from the great Korean music masters. Recognized internationally as a master of his form, he has performed at the United Nations General Assembly Hall as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble Project. While Dong-Won plays a range of percussive instruments, his primary instrument is the jang-go: an hourglass-shaped drum with two leather heads that are struck with mallets. One side of the drum has a higher pitch than the other. The instrument is used in samul nori traditional folk music, which was popularized by Korean farmers. Samul nori music typically features four different percussion instruments, each of which represents a force in nature. The jang-go symbolizes water or rain.

Dong-Won is celebrated for his participation in a range of intercultural projects. Last year he dazzled Guelph Jazz Festival (2013) audiences with his receptive and energetic playing in various contexts, particularly as part of the World Percussion Summit that opened last year’s Guelph Jazz festival. Dong-Won is also known for his pedagogy, as he has taught at various institutions including Harvard University and the Musik Akademie Basel, Switzerland. He currently teaches music as a professor of Wonkwang Digital University. In addition, he has written several fairy tales for children and was featured in a music documentary film, Intangible Asset Number 82 (2009). In September 2014, Dong-Won will step into the role of IICSI’s Improviser-in-Residence. In this role, Dong-Won will initiate new community impact workshops alongside musical performances in order to promote and advocate community building and diversity through improvisatory practices.

This month’s Oral History focuses on an interview with Dong-Won Kim conducted by Joshua D. Pilzer as part of the Improvising Eye Colloquium that was held on December 17th, 2010 in Guelph. Pilzer is an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. His first book, Hearts of Pine, about singing in the lives of Korean survivors of the Japanese “comfort women” system, was published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. In the interview, Pilzer and Dong-Won Kim discuss a range of topics, including rhythmic structure, Korean music, the spirit, pitch,
certainty and uncertainty in harmony, and musical inspiration.

The full transcript of the interview is available, here.

Quote of the Month:

"And so the experiment really rests on the following: What happens in the brain during something that's memorized and over-learned, and what happens in the brain during something that is spontaneously generated, or improvised, in a way that's matched motorically and in terms of lower-level sensory motor features? [...] Science has to catch up to art”
―Charles Limb 

Charles Limb is a doctor and a musician who researches the way musical creativity works in the brain. The quotation is taken from his Ted talk entitled, "Your Brain on Improv." In that Ted talk, Limb probes how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. Of course, it could be argued that Limb reduces creativity to a machine-like process, analogous to a computer and program written in synapses. Can and should improvisation be studied this way? What do you think?

Watch the Ted talk, here.



The international Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice research project explores musical improvisation as a model for social change. The project plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary research to shape political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

As a form of musical practice, improvisation embodies real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration. Improvisation must be considered not simply as a musical form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body. This project focuses primarily on jazz and creative improvised music. The dominant theoretical issues emerging from this music have vital social implications.

Check out our diverse research collection.

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Artist of the Month:

Pictures by Paul Watkins from Space is the Place: Sun Ra Arkestra, students from the Regent Park School of Music and the dancers of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Toronto, Oct. 20th, 2012.

Sun Ra Arkestra (Saturn)

“I’m playing intergalactic music, which is beyond the other idea of space music, because it is of the natural infinity of the eternal universe … Music is a universal language […] The intergalactic music is in hieroglyphic sound: an abstract analysis and synthesis of man’s relationship to the universe, visible and invisible first man and second man.”
-Sun Ra

Sun Ra, who thought of himself as much as a scientist as a musician, used space, music, and improvisation as ways to escape the material world and, to contemplate cosmic realities. This year makes the arrival of Sun Ra on planet earth. In honour of this occasion, the Guelph Jazz Festival will feature (yes, all the way from Saturn) the Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, in a collaborative performance, "Hymn to the Universe," with the renowned Canadian dance company Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. 

From the mid-1950s up until he left the planet, Sun Ra led the Arkestra (a neologism combining “Ark” with “orchestra”), a large ensemble with a perpetually changing and flexible lineup. While the Arkestra went through various versions, the core members remained: Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, June Tyson, and others. Reflecting the improvisatory nature of the music and message, the Arkestra often went under various names, such as “The Solar Myth Arkestra,” the “Blue Universe Arkestra,” “Myth Science Arkestra,” and many other incarnations. After Sun Ra returned to Saturn, the Arkestra was led by tenor saxophonist John Gilmore who also left the planet in 1995. The Arkestra continues to tour and spread the sound of joy to audiences around the world and has remained under the direction of longstanding member and eminent alto saxophonist Marshall Allen who recently turned 90. 

Marshall Allen. Photo: Paul Watkins.

The Arkestra builds on the characteristic fundamentals of the jazz orchestra, mixing in a varied tapestry of rhythm, colour, and the unexpected. For their performance in Guelph, the Arkestra will be accompanied by the Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Founded in Quebec in 2000 by individually renowned dancers/choreographers Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux, Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie have collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including countertenor Daniel Taylor and contemporary composers Gordon Monahan and John Oswald. “Hymn to the Universe” is their collaboration with Marshall Allen and the other performers of the spectacular Sun Ra Arkestra. 

The Arkestra will also lead a parade/performance in Market Square on Saturday September 6th at 2:00 pm. Both the parade and evening concert are must-see performances. As Ajay Heble writes: “As artistic director of a festival dedicated to presenting some of the most 'out' jazz on the planet, I’ve learned from Ra’s example. I’ve learned that other futures, futures not confined to scripted or predefined ways of knowing or doing, are possible: who, after all, would have imagined 21 years ago that a small and unassuming university town in Southern Ontario would become known as a must-go 'out jazz' destination for musicians and audiences from around the world?” To purchase tickets, click here

Also, check out the latest book on Sun Ra from Chris Raschka.

Think Pieces 3: Tunes from Brainville: Improvised Jazz and/as Utopia 
By Greg Shupak

In this
piece, Greg Shupak examines the correlations between political visions of utopia and the space Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble refer to as the other side of nowhere, a space in which the world can be re-envisioned. Shupak uses Sun Ra's "Brainville" as an example of how improvised music itself can create a sociopolitical imagination of a new politics, a utopia.

Each month, a new Think Piece will be uploaded to the online home of the ICASP project to be shared, discussed, and debated. Full details, here.

Call For Think Pieces: We invite submissions of Think Pieces that range from 750-1250 words (approx.) and explore improvisation as it applies to different sites of theory, engagement, and practice. The papers can be creative or theoretical in nature, but should explore some aspect of improvisation and its possibilities for critical analysis, social action, and/or social belonging. A general format for the title of each piece should be as follows: “Think Piece: Improvisation and ______”. Papers do not need to be fully developed or scholarly in nature, and may seek to pose questions for future research. Submissions and questions should be directed to Mark Kaethler at:

LAST CALL, 2014 Hip Hop
Mini-Symposium and Festival  

October 17, 2014 | Corvallis, Oregon

The College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University in conjunction with the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the Popular Music Studies Program at OSU will host a one-day conference and festival on the topic of Hip Hop Music and Culture. The conference will bring together two aspects of hip hop music: scholarship and performance. Our keynote speaker is the legendary hip hop performer MC Lyte.

Full details here

All proposals must be received by Friday, August 15 (that's today). Acceptance notices will be posted Monday August 25th. Accepted applicants must provide their own travel and lodging.

Will the Real Sonny Rollins, Please Stand Up
Jazz is full of humour, parody, and irony. Listen to Fats Waller, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Thelonious Monk’s “Humph,” or countless other recordings. However, it is hardly a surprise that jazz fans and Sonny Rollins got upset over a July 31st piece published by The New Yorker titled, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” In the satirical piece Django Gold, a senior writer for The Onion, pretending to be Rollins, wrote: “The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig […] Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with.” In a video now uploaded to YouTube, Rollins contends that The New Yorker piece was in poor taste, since “Jazz has been mocked, minimalized, [and] marginalized throughout its whole history.” Read The New Yorker piece
here—which now includes an editor’s note as a result of public outcry—and view Rollins’s response below:

Improv Notes was initially distributed in 2008 as a quarterly newsletter. Since June 2011 the revamped Improv Notes has been assembled, written, and distributed on a monthly basis by ICASP's Media and Public Relations Coordinator, Paul Watkins. If you have anything improvisation related that you would like to have included in the newsletter, please send an email to Paul at:

Musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

– Ajay Heble