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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 8

Exploring Improvisation Between the Arts

by Paul Serralheiro / May 14, 2005

On June first begins the fifth anniversary edition of Suoni Per Il Popolo (more on that in the next issue). Along with concerts slated for the smaller Casa and the ballroom-sized Sala Rosa on St. Laurent street, will be a number of special events. One of these is the now annual late-Spring conference organized by the “Project on Improvisation” (or PI for short).

Started up three years ago, PI is the brainchild of Eric Lewis, a philosophy professor at McGill University. A research institute of sorts, this organization is dedicated to the study and promotion of improvisation in the arts and features year-round activities including workshops, lectures, concerts and exhibits. Its first annual conference which took place last year rallied a number of academics and practioners in the field, most notably the eminent African-American trombonist and educator George Lewis, the multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, as well as Guelph jazz Festival head, Ajay Heble.

The shows taking place during last year’s conference held in late May, right before the Suoni festival, were performed at the Sala Rosa, while the talks took place on campus. But as Dr. Lewis points out, “I was asked to curate three nights (June 3, 4, 5 to be exact) of this year’s Suoni per Il Popolo,” a move that now formalizes the connection between these two presenters.

For the upcoming symposium, the proposed theme is “Improvising in the Arts/Improvising between the Arts”. The talks will explore such topics as the links between jazz rhythms and tap dance, the philosophy of improvisation across the arts, improvisation and dub poetry, as well as  the use of spoken word in the jazz avant-garde movement. Some of the most prominent scholars and performers in this area will be in attendance, most notably Robert O’Meally, writer of several books on improvised music traditions, improvising musicians Bill Dixon and Wadada Leo Smith, and the important jazz and spoken word pioneer Amiri Baraka.

Also worth noting is the special event taking place at the Canadian Centre for Architecture on Saturday afternoon, June 4, where veteran improvising trumpeter and painter Bill Dixon (who like his contemporary Leo Smith, has never appeared in Montreal) will perform solo and participate in a round table discussion along with Montreal artist and drummer John Heward, as well as visual artist Sylvia Safdie. This event will also include video and slide presentations.

To round things off, the Project on Improvisation’s last day will feature an evening performance at the Sala Rosa where Amiri Baraka will be accompanied by the trio Undersound (John Heward, Joe McPhee and Dominic Duval on bass).

According to Lewis, the conferences and demonstrations will focus on “how people in distinct art forms collaborate and what the arts have to say about improvisation” while the demonstrations will “enable people to see how theories are applied.”

The longer-term goal of the Project on Improvisation, as Lewis hastens to add, is “to develop a permanent study of improvisation,” which he has described elsewhere as “an act of experimenting with new political structures and new forms of political dialogue”. For those interested, Lewis intends to collect all conference papers for publication in book form.

For more information on the PI Project conference, visit the following website: http://www.mcgill.ca/improv

(c) La Scena Musicale