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3 lessons from musical improvisation to help navigate 2021

THERE is no doubt that we live in challenging times. But challenges can also lead to opportunities and lessons about how we might live our lives differently. Referencing the life-changing moment in which we are living, author and activist Arundhati Roy writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Music, too, has long been an important catalyst for imagining, and indeed often enacting, new ways of living together in the world. Social theorist Jacques Attali famously wrote in his book Noise about music’s ability to foreshadow “new relations among people.”

At this time when we’re being asked to shelter in place, when concerts and festivals have been canceled and the ability of musicians to earn a living wage has been severely diminished, so many musicians and arts presenters have responded in creative ways or offered up new creative works that encouraged us to imagine the world anew.

As a musician and professor with the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) at the University of Guelph, I helped organize a 24-hour online improvisation festival (IF) in August 2020.

Beyond jazz or theatrical improvisation, our festival showcased an entire diversity of live arts improvisation. We featured a range of performances charged with the momentum of surprise and sudden inventiveness. We put our spotlight on artists engaged in real-time creative decision-making and risk-taking. These artists made use of the tools at hand in the arenas open to them in order to imbue the world with the possibility to make positive things transpire. IF 2020 featured over 150 artists, including musicians, spoken word poets, dancers, theater performers and multidisciplinary practitioners from more than 25 countries.

Our all-night celebration of the arts showcased a wide range of short improvisational performances captured in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)  pandemic. The festival was presented by our improvisation institute in partnership with festivals and community organizations around the world. Through this event, we offered a compelling alternative for people to come together and find solace and inspiration through art. As we enter a new year (and with it, we hope, a post-pandemic landscape) there is, I believe, much about improvisation that can inspire us.

Improvising musicians in particular, working without a written score or script, have shown us throughout the pandemic, as before, how they use the resources at hand to envision something new, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Many artists featured during our festival were prompted to look anew at the potential of everyday objects in their homes. Without a drum set at hand, the Japanese musician Natsuki Tamura hit a wok and mixing bowl in his kitchen and found, as he noted: “They sounded very good.”

Canadian vocalist Carey West and her husband Jeff Wilson, a drummer and percussionist, also found themselves in the kitchen. They turned cleaning up into an impromptu performance for found percussion and voice that aptly expressed the tension (but also the comfort) experienced by families as they negotiate close quarters during lockdown.

Amidst the unprecedented global challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, music has offered us some inspirational lessons about resourcefulness, resilience, and hope.

While many of us rediscovered nature during the pandemic, improvisers such as Canadian jazz saxophonist Jane Bunnett used its sounds and movements to animate their art.

American drummer Jimmy Weinstein and Italian singer Lilly Santon used the sounds of the wind and the sea in an improvised duo performance set amongst the architecture of Daniel Libeskind at Studio Weil, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Port d’Andratx on the island of Mallorca in Spain.

These artists, like many others during our festival, expressed the renewed joy found in the beauty of, and musical collaboration with, forests, water, insects, birds, flowers and wind. They asked us to heighten our awareness, to listen more deeply to sounds, and even silences, that suffused skies and traffic circles globally as lockdown immobilized people. Their soundscapes often attempted to suggest sonically that everything had changed.

The pandemic has underscored the ways in which human connection is critical to our well-being. At our festival, we also learned about the role improvisational artistic practices can play in modeling alternative ways of being together and collaborating in community, even while apart.

One of our featured partner organizations, Nameless Sound, presented material from a program they launched in Houston, Texas, where improvising musicians can be scheduled to perform experimental music from a safe distance in front of your home.

When we feel the weight of being unable to hug our family members or to share a meal with friends, our festival taught us that we are still able to forge connections and community across physical and temporal divides. We saw the vital ways in which the arts can offer hope, solace, comfort and togetherness.

I’ve long believed that festivals are more than just about programming. As we learned through IF 2020, they can be opportunities to test new ideas, to reinvigorate public life with the spirit of dialogue and community. They can help us sound the possibility of new ways to live together.

It’s not always comfortable to let go of what we know and expect, to abandon the tried and true. We tend to privilege how and what we know already over surprise. Coming together in creative ways enables new possibilities.

In challenging us to adapt to unprecedented circumstances, the current moment has offered us a call to action.

What if, taking our cue from improvising artists, we could be inspired to mobilize the resources at hand? What if, as we look forward to the unknowns of a post-pandemic landscape, we could learn to unleash the capacity to celebrate the creative allure that resides in the snap of the new and untried, in the sparkle of provocation, in the prod of what it might mean to imagine the world afresh?

If there has ever been a moment in our history that demands improvisation, surely we are living it.

Ajay Heble is a Professor at the School of English and Theater Studies of the University of Guelph.

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