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Opening Night! An NEC Comprovisational


Ran Blake playing in 2013 (Jonathan Sachs photo)

For 40 years, the NEC Contemporary Improvisation Program has helped musicians transcend traditional limits. The resulting delightfully diverse group of faculty and students pushes boundaries and combines musical genres. Currently co-chaired by the impassioned Hankus Netsky and Eden MacAdam-Somer, the program focuses not only on technique and ear training, but also on conception, collaboration and exploration of wide-ranging improvisational techniques. Tuesday, that department offered Opening Night!, a well-crafted evening of widely varied contemporary and exploratory pieces showcasing a gamut of possibilities, primarily featuring faculty. By the end of the broad and deep event, I nearly wanted to abandon my day job and enroll.  

The long concert comprised 13 presentations that varied from Cruel Sisters, a haunting Anglo-American tale of internecine siblings sung with piercing beauty by Kristi Catt in collaboration with the accomplished and emotive Hui Weng on the guzheng to a splendid but understated ending with Contemporary Improvisation’s founder Ran Blake playing the Ary Barroso’s Brazil/Biai and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Desafinado in an intentionally blacked out Brown Hall.  During panoply of performances, my ears sampled sounds that ran from the sublime to the profane and back.

A spellbinding Improvisation on Gheychak for Persian bowed lute, opened the festivities, here rendered on the sitar by Nima Janmohammadi in memory of the eminent sitarist and ethnomusicologist, Peter Row, long-time NEC faculty member who died in April (and whose memorial concert will take place September 20th at NEC).

MacAdam-Somer and Netsky then provided an upbeat set of Reels from County Klez, combining a touch of Irish humor to traditional klezmer music, and lightening the mood.

Pianist Steven Long played “Guggul” from Anthony Coleman’s 9-section work, Streams, the whole of which premiered to considerable approbation on May 2nd as part of the 150th celebration of NEC. Coleman’s hallmark improvisation and composition melded strains of jazz, contemporary chamber music, classical, and various types of Jewish music—all of which has wide appeal.  

As the evening unfolded further, the prevailing mood changed with each offering, along with the setups. Tanya Kalmanovitch fetchingly read and played violin with Netsky on accordion to introduce Métis fiddling—a style derived from the French term for someone of mixed heritage, here meaning people with mixed European and Native American heritage, going back to the fur trading days in the early 19th Century. Andre (Andy) DeJarlis, who lived from 1914-1975, brought the genre to prominence, with tunes such as The Manitoba Waltz. Here Kalmanovitch shared her origins and path in music in a wry prose poem and with her saucy, playful musicianship.

Composer and jazz pianist Bert Seager took a deep and moving approach that combines the fundamentals of harmony and rhythm to improvisation and composition, which some would call comprovisation. Seager on piano and MacAdam-Somer on violin delivered his Weightless, which has contrapuntal Bach-like phrasing and some parts reminiscent of Bolling but with a unique, insistent voice.

Many musical and oral traditions blended succinctly in two sets. Jerry Leake and colleagues began with tabla and others continued with recorded vocals in Kind or a Three. They Spoke, went on with Linda Chase with Leake on percussion, Netsky on piano, Chase on flute and as reader of “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirschfield, along with Sam Jones and Grace Ward contributing vocals.  

The rest of the concert was replete with possibilities: Lautaro Mantilla, on guitar with MacAdam-Somer, with voice and violin crafted Tonadas de Ordeño, written in 1985 by the Venezuelan singer Soledad Bravo into their own powerful version.

Paradox, by self-taught guitarist and composer Joe Morris, apparently “allows for five modes of interaction, three expressions of pulse and the use of melodic and sound structure”—in any manner the musicians wish. The collective interplay in the brief version we heard from Morris on guitar, Elinor Speirs on violin and Brad Barrett on double bass, mesmerized.

George Jones, who died in Nashville in 2013, released Mr. Fool in 1991, and here it was updated by MacAdam-Somer, Netsky and Mark Zaleski on double bass. What an interesting reconfiguration of country music!

Improvisation on the work of Haci Arif Bey, Nihavend Taksim/ Nihavend Şarki “Bakmiyor çeşm-i—siyah” brought us back to the Middle East with Mal Barsamian on clarinet and Mehmet Sanlikol on oud and vocals.

After such a sound- and thought-provoking evening, I left wanting to hear more and wanting to try some new sounds at home, if I could be assured that only my cat would hear me. More events from NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation students and faculty will occur throughout the year. Don’t miss these opportunities!

Julie Ingelfinger, a nearly life-long Cantabrigian, is a serious pianist and congenital music lover. She enjoys day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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