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Brandeis Improv Collective celebrates the wonder of improvisation in music

By Emma Kahn

Section: Arts

May 6, 2016

On April 19, the Brandeis Improv Collective (BIC) performed their semester show in Slosberg Music Center. Brandeis Improv Collective is one of many student ensemble groups at Brandeis, aiming to bring the process of improvisation to musicians and students. Each semester, the Brandeis Improv Collective meets for 10 classes, bringing together students of all experience levels and backgrounds to practice the skill of improvisation. Led by Director Tom Hall, the BIC students of the Spring 2016 semester showcased their talents in a final performance to the public last week.

Before the show began, audience members were bombarded with the sounds of practicing instruments ranging from vocals to the violin to the electric guitar. The performers paid no mind to the audience slowly filling in, as they bounced around the stage, testing the acoustics and setting up microphones. The warmups, as chaotic as they were, set the stage and prepared the audience for a relaxed and exciting night of music. Before any introduction was made, the tone was set for full improvisation from the start.

Director Tom Hall began the show by asking all the audience members to move closer to the stage, encouraging audience participation. Hall gave a brief introduction into the practice of improvisation and the ways in which the Improv Collective prepares for its semester-end show. The class practices improvising together as a group, but the particular modes of improv depend on who enrolls in the course each semester. Although each semester promotes open and free practice, each new group results in different forms each semester.

“We hope to impart a love for any improvisation,” said Hall. “Improvisation is a social mechanism. The process of learning to improvise together as a group is a good practice of democratic and non-hierarchical learning.”

Improv Collective allows students to focus not on the product of their talent but on the process of creating music. The group is open to anyone who wants to join, regardless of instrument or of experience level.

The group began by playing in the style of what Hall refers to as “conducted improvisation,” in which a conductor signals to each musician when to begin playing and, feeling for the general output of the musicians combined, will direct the group towards a certain structure. However, the music remains free from any limitations of genre or musical score. Instruments are added in one at a time, highlighting each instrument’s’ contribution and allowing each performer to shape the end result.

“It’s not easy to get 20 people to do something at the same time with no rules,” quipped Hall, following the first piece of conducted improvisation.

Hall then joined a student in a brief duet of saxophone and electric guitar, a combination generally left untouched by mainstream music genres. The smooth, rich sound of Hall’s saxophone contrasted sharply with the twang of electric guitar, yet the two performers bounced off one another and pulled together a tune seemingly out of thin air.

One piece was inspired by the staging of the performance space. Scattered across the space were small shaded lamps, providing a calm, almost coffee-house effect when the main lights were shut off. During the third piece, performers played their instruments only when the light closest to them was on. Half the students were tasked with switching the lights on and off. The stage was blinking along to the music, generating a fun and whimsical effect.

One interesting activity on stage involved audience members choosing slips of paper out of a bowl. Each slip contained a name of one of the Improv Collective members, and dictated the order in which the musicians would begin the next score. The act of choosing out of the bowl served as a reminder of just how adaptable the Improv Collective class becomes throughout their time together.

Another song shortly after was simply an a cappella improvisation. Although audience members were invited to join, none went on stage. Despite a lack of audience participation, and although the singers took some time to find their rhythm and pattern, their persistence and openness allowed a lovely tune to emerge and slowly fade out.

The performers’ faces clearly showed the moments of success and the moments of struggle to find balance. The ease with which the performers responded to moments of disarray spoke volumes to their dedication and sincere appreciation for improv. Despite the challenges of improvisation in front of an expectant audience, the Improv Collective masterfully showcased a confidence on stage and a love for improvisation that they cultivated throughout the semester. Bringing a sense of humor and a strong feeling of joy to the stage, the Improv Collective presented a new and fun form of music performance to campus. For those unaccustomed to the technical aspects of music theory, the impromptu songs generated by two musicians were awe-inspiring.

As stated on the Brandeis Improv Collective’s page, found on Brandeis’ Music Department website, the BIC is “open to all Brandeis students who play an instrument or sing, regardless of skill or experience in improvising. For those without the time or sufficient experience to fully participate in the Jazz Ensemble, this may be the group for you! BIC meets on Tuesday nights for 10 classes a semester, culminating in a performance in Slosberg Recital Hall at the end of each semester. Sign-up sheets are posted in the Slosberg Music Center at the beginning of each semester.”

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