Improvisation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

At the end of the summer the conversation around the Syrian refugee crisis changed when shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy went viral. Since then numerous videos have appeared that humanize the millions of displaced and dispossessed refugees. The conversation drastically shifted to one around security after the Paris attacks, and has changed again in Canada after Justin Trudeau gave a welcoming response to Syrian refugees.

I’ve published a short paper about the crisis where I suggest that improvisation might be one way we can frame a meaningful response to the crisis. The current Syrian refugee crisis—the civil war and the displaced peoples that resulted from it, but also the crisis with respect to how Western countries have responded to it—affirms a renewed need to learn to deal with social dissonance. In this piece, I discuss the ways in which social and musical improvisation (particularly when immersed in the ethics of “cocreation”) can teach us about the merits of creative risk-taking in relation to the current Syrian refugee crisis, a form of social dissonance. Learning to improvise imbues citizens with the important notion that creative risk-taking makes for more exciting and, while unpredictable to a degree, egalitarian societies. Ultimately, I insist that we can fight the insular mechanics of an improvisation of fear with an improvisation of hope that challenges the anxiety that refugees destroy borders and culture, as if these things are pure, static, given, unchanging, and authentic.

See the full article, here.

Featured image from here.

Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation on Hip-Hop is Now Live

Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation

Vol 10, No 1

Edited by Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines

To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together. In recent years, the cypher has also grown to include the crowd and spectators who are integral to maintaining the energy of a given cypher. In a cypher, one emcee will rap about a certain topic, which is quickly taken up or flipped by another emcee who plays off the prior words and themes. Each artist takes his or her respective turn, much like in a jazz solo. Cyphers flow freely between diverse performers who improvise their words, sounds, or movements to create a complex matrix of sharing. The circle can go on continuously, as long as emcees, beatboxers, dancers, and the crowd keep the fluidity of the cypher going. The cypher is welcoming and thus models a pedagogy that is inclusive and improvisational in nature.

This issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation aims to act as a cypher, engaging with the embodied practice of locally specific yet globally implicated hip-hop, as we consider the cypher as a metaphor for the complexities of critically thinking about improvisation more broadly. Appropriately, our theme of “Cyphers” attracted a wide range of analyses with many points of intersection. Our final selection ranges from discussions with historically significant scholars and practitioners in hip-hop and Black expressive culture to newer texts at the intersections between hip-hop and other art forms, as well as those tracing the improvisatory affects of hip-hop across cultural and technological boundaries.

Each paper in this issue addresses specific responses to the improvisatory impulse in hip-hop. We start the issue with a number of interviews. We are honoured that George Lipsitz agreed to interview Tricia Rose for this issue, bringing two significant scholars in Black Studies into conversation. This interview emphasizes Rose’s vital contributions to the field of hip-hop scholarship and addresses the broader importance of improvisatory Black expressive cultural practices as “sites and sources of knowledges, as repositories of collective memory, as sights of moral instruction, as ways of calling communities into being through interaction and through performance.” Rebecca Caines’ interview with leading Canadian hip-hop researcher Charity Marsh focuses on Marsh’s creation and leadership of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs in Saskatchewan as an innovative, exploratory space for disenfranchised communities to meet and learn about themselves through hip-hop practices. In conversation with Vancouver-based poet/scholar/DJ Wayde Compton, Paul Watkins addresses Compton’s work on history, identity, and race, exploring the idea of improvising Blackness from within both local (BC) and transnational contexts. This audio interview is then remixed a number of times to allow the conversation to interact with Compton’s readings of his own poetry and with a number of different music samples. Watkins then continues this exploration of critically engaged approaches to artistic practice with his review of Flying Lotus’s (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) 2014 release, “You’re Dead!

Jesse Stewart examines the form of “jazz-rap” that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. He charts the use of improvisational jazz forms in this type of hip-hop music and perceives this act as a kind of cultural memory practice that “mobilizes the musical past in the service of a socially progressive cultural politics of difference.” Niel Scobie addresses dissonance and “noise” in improvisation and in hip-hop music, with special attention to the music of Public Enemy. For Scobie, “anti-musical” aesthetics allow the group to create lineage with the “discordant cries” of African-American past practices whilst developing a potent improvisatory musical urgency and a call to arms.

Both Marcel Swiboda and Mark Campbell address technological mediation in hip-hop practices. Swiboda addresses “the break,” developing a new critical history of electronic tools for beatmaking to supplement existing scholarship, which has tended to focus more on the use of turntables for isolating and manipulating the breakbeat. Swiboda suggests that technological and material histories of improvisatory beatmaking practices can be “technologically driven, idiomatically specific vernacular modes of critical knowledge practice” and can also bear an “intimate link to improvisatory practices.” Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on current digital DJ practices. His ethnographic project is to discover how newer digital interfaces affect younger DJs in live performance and in radio settings. He argues that digital DJ interfaces might represent “ways to continue to humanize technology as a subversive afrosonic activity, while evolving the practice of DJing.”

See the full editorial and issue, here.


Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.

Oral Histories Project

Since January 2012 I’ve curated an Oral Histories Special Project for the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice Project.  The ICASP project plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry in Improvisation Studies. The project’s core hypothesis is that musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

Oral Histories is a showcase of interviews, performances, and articles by and about improvising musicians, artists, writers, and scholars. This monthly feature offers an intimate look inside the minds and practices of some of the many dynamic, innovative people whose energy and ideas make improvisation studies such a vibrant field of inquiry. The Oral Histories project provides a space for improvising artists to be heard in their own words, often in dialogue with other improvisers, scholars, and practitioners. Back in 2012, I wrote a short reflective piece on the idea behind the project, musing on the relationship between orality and improvised musical practices. That short reflection can be found here.

The project has also been useful for my PhD thesis, Soundin’ Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry, since the thesis contains audio/visual interviews (many archived under the Oral Histories project) with several poets explored in the thesis (including M. NourbeSe Philip, George Elliott Clarke, Cecil Foster, d’bi.young, Wayde Compton, and others). Future Oral Histories will include the legendary South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, the late Amiri Baraka in conversation with William Parker, and more!

View Past Oral Histories below:

2014

 2013

 2012

Featured photo of Paul Watkins in conversation with d’bi.young.

We Can Never Tell the Entire Story of Slavery: In Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

The Toronto Review of Books has just published my interview with the renowned poet, M. NourbeSe Philip. In the interview we focus on her work Zong!, and touch on music, improvisation, slavery (including the film 12 Years a Slave), the haunting of modernity, and more!

Read the full interview, here.

Photo by Paul Watkins of M. NourbeSe Philip leading a book-length reading of Zong! on November 29th, 2013.

Call for Papers: “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation”

I am guest-editing a special collection of essays on Hip Hop and Improvisation. The Call for Papers is below.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation invites submissions for a special issue with the theme “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation,” guest-edited by Rebecca Caines and Paul Watkins. This special issue of CSI will draw together artists and academics to investigate the crucial role improvisation plays in the international field of Hip Hop, and in the related field of critical Hip Hop studies. We seek contributions from artist/practitioners and from scholars working across the disciplines.

Derek Bailey’s notion of improvisation as being the most practiced, yet the least understood, of all musical activities, is particularly pertinent to the immense and constantly burgeoning field of Hip Hop praxis from around the world. Although most scholars are aware of the integral nature of improvisatory practices in Hip Hop, few critically explore how improvisation is a viable form of analysis in Hip Hop, as well as a model for social change. Improvisation plays a central role in African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean based Hip Hop practices in the US, and continues to be a core element in Hip Hop music, dance, and visual art across the globalized forms of this interdisciplinary art practice. We encourage contributors to pursue new conversations, interventions even, about how we think of improvisation vis-à-vis the larger milieu of Hip Hop. Critical academic essays are encouraged, and the editors also welcome for consideration artist statements, commentaries, reviews, interviews and experimental textual forms. We intend to showcase a variety of live artist performances and invited papers at a launch event for this Special Issue. CSI/ÉCI encourages the submission of audio and visual content to accompany texts. It is the responsibility of the author to ascertain copyright and gain permissions.

Potential topics include:

• How do Hip Hop artists combine idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation in their work?

• What artistic, social, and economic pressures face Hip Hop artists who foreground the improvisatory in their work?

• How does improvisation in Hip Hop reflect, develop, or contrast the social practices and pressing political issues of the communities in which it appears?

• What role does improvisation play in the creation of academic disciplinarities and “Hip Hop pedagogies” both inside and outside educational institutions? How might the ubiquity of improvised DJ performances inform knowledge formation, and provide critical tools for pedagogues?

• How does scholarship in Hip Hop studies respond to the improvisatory nature of the practice?

• What role does improvisation in Hip Hop play in the recontextualization of cultural and intercultural identity?

• How do Indigenous communities across the world improvise, translate, transform, and indigenize the US form of Hip Hop arts practice?

• Since Hip Hop has often traditionally been described as “noise” by many conservatives and academics who uncritically profile Hip Hop artists and fans of all genders, races, and classes, might dissonance compel us to think about how disruption can function as a model for critical practice?

• How are the five primary elements of Hip Hop—dance (notably breaking), urban inspired art (markedly graffiti), deejaying (turntablism), beatboxing and emceeing (rapping)—negotiated under improvisatory practices and amalgamations?

• In what ways are orality and textuality (what we might think of as recording) tied to Hip Hop and how might either form limit or broaden the art?

• Houston A. Baker Jr. argues, poetry, like rap, is intended to be a “disruptive performance […] as an audible or sounding space of opposition” (Rap 96). In what ways are Hip Hop and poetry related?

• What are the relationships between technology, accessibility, and Hip Hop culture?

• How do DJs improvisationally rework archival material that is often dormant, thus creating new repertoires from the past?

• While misogyny is bigger than Hip Hop, we welcome papers that explore how gender is improvised and performed in Hip Hop.

Submissions should be 4000-6000 words (shorter essays may also be considered at the discretion of the editors). Please submit completed essays to the journal website by April 16, 2014. Information on the submission process and examples of previously published work can be found at www.criticalimprov.com. Inquires can also be directly made to csi-eci@uoguelph.caCritical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation is an open-access, peer-reviewed, electronic, academic journal on improvisation, community, and social practice housed at the University of Guelph.

Cypher photo by AFP from here.

Improvisation as an Act of Faith

On December 6th, Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) presented a symposium (“Spirit(s) Improvise”) on improvisation and spirituality. “Spirit(s) Improvise” brought together distinguished scholars, musicians, and spiritual practitioners to explore the relationship between improvisation and spirituality. One of the primary questions asked was how can improvisation and spirituality, broadly defined as frameworks through which people imagine and enact alternative ways of being in the world, contribute to our understandings of imagination and creativity, community and space, and transcendence and hope?

Held at and co-sponsored by the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, the well-attended event sparked animated conversations and debates about the relationship between improvisation and spirituality from a variety of perspectives: musical, political, social, and theological.

For speaker bios and abstracts, click here.

Below are some photos from the event.

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Gerard Yun (Music, University of Waterloo) and Luke Burton (Wilfrid Laurier Unviersity) “Beyond Traditions: Yogic Chant and Shakuhachi in Contemporary Improvisation.”
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Ajay Heble introduces the keynote speaker.
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Anglican Priest, Jamie Howison, delivers a keynote entitled, “Improvisation as an Act of Faith.”
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There were lots of engaged questions from the audience.
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Lauren Levesque (Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice, University of Guelph), “Protest Music Performances as Methodological Frameworks for Re-envisioning Engaged Spirituality: Implications for Improvisation.”
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The event concluded with a fully improvised performance.
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David Lee.

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Adapted from a write-up by  Lauren Levesque.
All Photos by Paul Watkins.

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and mercurial composer working at the edges of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. Perhaps the rightful heir to Miles Davis, Smith is known for his introverted style of playing and his incredible use of space. In the 1960s he gained experience performing in R&B groups, later playing in the military, and in 1967 he was a member of Chicago’s AACM, going on to form his own group, New Dalta Ahkri, playing with such free jazz luminaries as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake, and Anthony Braxton, among others. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for the incredible American civil rights-era odyssey, Ten Freedom Summers (2012).

Smith's Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
Smith’s Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.

At 273 minutes the four-disc box set, Ten Freedom Summers, is an epic free jazz/classical/astral work that rightfully belongs in the jazz lexicon alongside Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, or Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige. Ten Freedom Summers evokes the civil rights movement through a series of freedom motifs and dedications, including a piece dedicated to Emmett Till, the Dred Scott case, the black church, Rosa Parks, and moves forwards (or backwards) to September 11th. Smith can shift the focus on an entire improvising ensemble at the sudden sound of a single note. While Ten Freedom Summers is meticulously composed, Smith wrote improvised elements into his masterwork, which could be heard by Smith and his Golden Quartet during their performance at this year’s 20th Anniversary Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) in moments of atomized energy. Sections of Ten Freedom Summers were performed at the GJF with Smith’s Golden Quartet of Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on double bass, and Anthony Brown on drums.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.
Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.

Have a listen to “Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Wadada Leo Smith from Ten Freedom Summers:

Also, check out the Golden Quartet’s “Rosa Parks” (excerpt), from the album Tabligh:

All Photos by Paul Watkins.

Tomomi Adachi

Adachi  performs on a self-made instrument.
Tomomi Adachi performs on a self-made instrument.

 

 

Tomomi Adachi (足立 智美) is a Japanese vocal and electronics performer, improviser, composer, instrument builder, installation artist, theatre director, and sound poet. He is the only performer of sound poetry in Japan and performed Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” for the first time in Japan. He has performed with numerous musicians, dancers, and filmmakers, and along with his incredible vocal improvisations, he is known for his unique improvisations on his self-made instruments, many of which are made from Tupperware: a material that is both affordable and portable. Adachi describes his creations as an extension of his improvisatory practice: “I began to build instruments by myself in 1994, it was almost the same period with starting my activity as an improviser.” Last month in Guelph, Ontario we were treated to a performance by Adachi on one of his self-made instruments, as well as a vocal performance, followed by a self-reflexive talk about his artistic praxis.

The event took place at the inaugural Thinking Spaces Reading Group in Guelph. After the performance, Adachi discussed his work as an improviser with a focus on his own approach to self-made instruments, as well as his newest project PUTIF (People’s United Telepathic Improvisation Front), a collaboration with Jennifer Walshe. In PUTIF, Walshe and Adachi improvise together at a specified time in two separate locations, listening to one another at distances beyond the reach of the human ear. These improvisations are recorded and later combined and compared. They also encourage others to listen telepathically to their improvisation and send in descriptions of what they hear. At the Reading Group, Adachi discussed how telepathy functions as a conceptual framework for musical improvisation, demonstrating how others can be present in their absence. He also discussed how improvisation can be a tool for being together despite physical distance, as well as posing questions about the advantages of telematic technology in an age where it is becoming increasingly common.

If you get a chance you should check out Adachi’s fantastically creative work. For now, here is a video of Adachi performing on a self-made instrument, similar to the one he performed with in Guelph:

And, here are a couple photos of Tomomi Adachi’s performance and visit to Guelph.

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All photos of Tomomi Adachi by Paul Watkins.