In the open air of her apartment porch, on a warm afternoon, Karen Ng is turning her saxophone inside out.
She hunches into a few impromptu minutes with her alto, serving up improvised allsorts, fragmented jazz lines changing to chiming tones, then to puffs of reed-popping noise. Josh Cole, bent over his double bass, accompanies her up the fingerboard, adding a patter of bass droplets.
The playing is intimate. Behind us lies the vast expanse of westside Toronto, rows of green backyards and back alleys stretching to the horizon. Ng and Cole later discuss the mechanics of what they played. But as a listener, it’s enough just to keep up with their pure improvisations, hearing them drift out to the city and all the thoughts they conjure by association.
There’s no end of theorizing about perfect moments of musical improvising like this. As critic Ralph Gleason once wrote (in the liner notes for Miles Davis’ LP Filles de Kilimanjaro), “When it is right, it takes great strength to leave because you have the overwhelming feeling at each moment that more surprises and delights are coming.”
Yet, beyond the critiques and theories on how improvisation works, there is a growing movement in academia looking at artistic improvisation as a guide for all of life’s improvisations, even larger societal progress. The University of Guelph is considered a leading centre for this with its International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, which brings together an international team of researchers and partners with community-based organizations to examine the arts as a spark for social change.
“What sets us apart is that we’re looking at musical and other forms of artistic improvisation as models of social practice … thinking through what we can learn from the arts and from music in particular,” said Ajay Heble, a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies and the institute’s director. He is also a key figure himself in experimental music as the founder and former long-time artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, which runs this week until Sept. 19.
The institute gathers and highlights research that helps us better understand improvisation as a social phenomenon that has real-world implications beyond the creative realm. How 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, the natural sciences, environmental sciences and other fields.
“If there’s ever been a moment in our history that demands that we know how to improvise, this may be it,” Heble said, noting a Financial Times article by author Arundhati Roy in which she describes pandemics as a portal for change.
The bandstand (or Ng’s porch) as a microcosm of society is an easy metaphor to grasp – a model of co-operation that takes a group to the brink of chaos and back again. It’s an endless topic among musicians themselves, almost to the point of distraction. “We were hanging out at the studio last night, and we were like, ‘Why are we always talking about this?’” Ng said, laughing.
As for a definition of improvisational music and its accompanying scene, Cole breaks it down like this: If the music still has some kind of time signature, it’s free jazz. If there’s no sense of time, it’s improvisational music.
Research and analysis from academics around the world sometimes presents improvisation as a form of conflict resolution – the thinking goes that improvising frees someone to explore possibilities and offers flexibility of thought, both essential elements of problem-solving. Yet, the Guelph institute’s focus isn’t on music as a stand-in for organizational behaviour or politics.
Instead, it examines person-to-person co-operation, dialogue and a kind of mutual affirmation that exists in artistic practices. For George Lipsitz, research professor emeritus of Black studies and sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a leading figure in this field, it’s also about “people lacking in 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 is all about connecting people and building relationships – not just in avant-garde circles, but also when touring with various rock bands and with singer-songwriters who tend to gravitate to the improvisational scene, such as Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station.
“Especially with something like improvising, where you’re not necessarily drawing from repertoire or vocabulary, it’s more just about personalities,” said Ng, who is also assistant artistic and general director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, furthering the artistic pollination between Guelph and Toronto.
Trumpeter Lina Allemano, who splits her time between Toronto and Berlin, describes her approach differently. She creates from a point of deep listening. “If it’s a really improvised piece, for example, then I want to try to balance being supportive to the music and to the other musicians, and then initiating [an improvised part] when or if necessary. And that is kind of a difficult balance.”
Brodie West, a saxophonist also prominent in the scene, plays regularly with Allemano and Ng. (In fact, musicians in Toronto’s improvisation scene all play in each other’s bands and on each other’s recordings, making it a tight, nurturing community.) Yet, he talks about not relying too heavily on other musicians to provide a safety net if the music starts to fall apart, but meeting the situation with a certain fearlessness – even humour. He used that approach as a parent, he said, including while teaching his son when he was home from school during the pandemic.
Using improvisation as a social model is complicated, however, by the music’s need for a willing audience. If the audience is expecting straight-ahead jazz, and the musicians perform avant-garde sound art, a certain outcome is inevitable. The audience that came to hear Autumn Leaves sits nonplussed. The musicians feel like Martians. Ng and the others have all been there, walking around with the tip jar and being asked, “What was that?”
In music, as in life, the audience may have a different vibe, but they can be brought around, Heble said. “There’s this assumption perhaps that if people are going to find the music challenging or difficult, they’re not going to want to hear it, but it’s really about the context.”
At the Guelph festival, he would bring together musicians from entirely different backgrounds – from Ethiopia, Mali, Mexico, Canada – speaking no common language, and sometimes barely a common musical language.
“They just played, and they listened to one another. And they created some absolutely wondrous music,” Heble said. “What does this tell us about what it means to negotiate differences within the context of a community? What does it tell us about really listening to what’s going on around us? What does it tell us about trust, about social obligation? These are really profound social issues.”
The critique of improvisation in art can often go far afield. It’s been argued that true improvisation should never be recorded, but heard only once. Or, as Ng noted with a roll of the 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 artful 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 just whatever.
“People think improvisation is just operating without rules, and operating through impulse. But really, most of the people using improvisation know that spontaneity takes a lot of preparation, and that you have to be prepared to improvise,” said UC Santa Barbara’s Lipsitz.
And this illustrates ultimately the most elegant of all aspects of improvisation. With whatever how-to guides you draw from, whatever personal and collective histories you hold as you improvise, “it’s not just something you make up on the spot,” Heble said.
Karen Ng plays the Guelph Jazz Festival on Sept. 18 with the Rob Clutton Trio, while Brodie West is also at the festival Sept. 17 & 18 as part of the Revival Ensemble, playing the 1968 classic Far East Suite.
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