Improv Titans Flock to Lawrence University


Jon Mueller (left) and Tomeka Reid perform at the second annual ImprovisationaLU at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

(Photo: Mariah Griffin Photography)

Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, is raising its profile on the international improv scene. This fall, Lawrence hosted the second ImprovisationaLU, a student-run festival celebrating improvised music and other arts. The diverse lineup featured Tomeka Reid with Jon Mueller, Zeena Parkins, the duo of Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey, Stuart Dempster, Brandon Seabrook and alum Matt Blair, as well as live painting from visual artist Lewis Achenbach, who taught a workshop during the fest.

Funded by the university and various organizations within it, ImprovisationaLU (held Sept. 29–30) reflected the genuine enthusiasm Lawrence and Appleton have for improvised arts.

The festival was focused around the three sets each night but had plenty of other ways for attendees—students, faculty and locals alike—to interact with both the artists and improvisation as an interdisciplinary art form.

After the main shows each night, The Draw, a local art gallery, opened its space for attendees to immerse themselves in music played by students, the visiting artists and the audience itself. Attendees were encouraged to use found objects such as bells, bottles and rocks. The Draw also doubled as an art gallery, displaying Achenbach’s past work as well as paintings from the festival’s previous concerts and workshops.

During the second day, a listening walk—a trek where participants listen to all sounds, including traffic and nature—started the morning. Later in the day Reid and Seabrook offered master classes. Despite the greatly contrasting methods, both musicians taught improvisation in accessible, thoughtful ways to an engaged selection of students and locals. Reid, a cellist, was noticeably surprised by the participants’ variety of backgrounds.

“This is a whole different experience than when I went to undergrad—just how open the faculty is to free improvisation, and just improvisation,” Reid said before her performance. “It gives me hope about music programs.”

Matt Turner, an improv and jazz professor who directs the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) also emphasized the importance of improvising in an academic setting: “Since improvisation is becoming more and more of an important part of the Conservatory, it’s nice to see how students and community members can see how improvisation can play an important role in music-making outside of the jazz realm.”

Attendees were able to experience this exploration in full force with the wide variety of improvisation each night. One set had composer/trombonist/didjeriduist Dempster sharing the philosophy of Deep Listening, a way of listening he co-developed with composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros. Another set featured a completely free, first-ever collaboration between Reid and Mueller, who plays drums.

The festival opened with guitarist Seabrook showcasing his idiosyncratic approach to improvisation with sharp, erratic contrasts and bursts of textures. Seabrook admitted to being slightly nervous: “I felt here almost a little intimidated because it’s student-run. I wasn’t intimidated, but I felt like I really wanted to make sure I played well and did my best.”

While Seabrook was excited about it, the structure of the festival had him “under the microscope” more than usual, as he put it. The guitarist, along with Reid, was one of the artists who spent a considerable amount of time with the students outside of the performance and clinic settings, continuing to impart wisdom, but also to simply interact in a more relaxed way. It is not often the artists and audience can connect to this degree with ease, and this aspect of the festival was cherished by many of the attendees.

“The two things behind the festival were that we were creating community in our own space and that we were also supporting all these artists,” said Nathan Montgomery, the head curator and a senior studying Contemporary Improvisation at Lawrence. “It’s because of the resources of our community and because of the interest that we were able to do that.”

Based on the attendance, it’s clear both the university and the Fox Valley community would wholeheartedly welcome a third ImprovisationaLU next fall.

Until then, those in the area can look forward to concerts by saxophonist Joe Lovano (Feb. 2, 2018) and pianist Vijay Iyer (May 18).

For info on the 2017–18 Jazz Series at Lawrence, click here.

For info on the New Music series, click here. DB

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