SEM Preview: Global Perspectives on Improvisation and the Traditional at the 2016 SEM Conference

The Society for Ethnomusicology Improvisation Section brings together SEM members engaging in scholarship on extemporaneous music making for the purpose of advancing the development of cross-cultural scholarly perspectives on improvisational phenomena, primarily through the sponsorship and promotion of discussions, events, and publications related to improvisation. For more information on the Section, please visit this website or contact the Chair, Mark Lomanno, at

Building on last year’s very successful roundtable on “Improvisation and the Liberal Arts,” the Improvisation Section will host another roundtable this year titled “Global Perspectives on the ‘Traditional,'” which will feature Paul Austerlitz, Sonia Seeman, and Dave Wilson. These three discussants have provided a preview of their talks, included below. Also, along with the SEM Orchestra, the Section will host a jam session to immediately follow the Orchestra’s Friday night concert.

Sponsored Events

Thursday, 11/10

7:00-9:00p  Improvisation Section roundtable (see below) and business meeting

Friday, 11/11

8:30-10:30am  Panel on “CuBraYork: Cuban and Brazilian Improvisations in New York City,” co-sponsored by the Improvisation Section and the Latin American and Caribbean Music Section (LACSEM). Chair: Christopher Washburne (Columbia University)

8:30  Organic, Mixed, Universal: A Political Ecology of Brazilian Improvisations in New York City. Jason Stanyek (University of Oxford)

9:00  Terreno timbeado: Rhythmic Experimentation in New York's Cuban Dance Music. Sarah Town (Princeton University)

9:30  Pifanology: Collective Improvisation of Roots-Based Brazilian Music in Greenwich Village. Marc Gidal (Ramapo College)

10:00  Cross-Cultural Transactions: Improvisation, Transformation, and Syncretism in Contemporary New York City. Chris Stover (New School)

Sunday, 11/13

8:30-10:30am  Workshop on “Eastern Arab Maqam in Performance: The Case of Maqam Huzam,” co-sponsored by the Society for Arab Music Research and the Improvisation Section. Chair and Presenter: Scott Marcus (University of California, Santa Barbara)


Other Events of Note

Thursday, 11/10

8:30-10:30am  Roundtable on “Ethnography in the Jazz Archive”

1:45-3:45pm  Panel on “Improvisation in Musical Structure and Interaction”

Friday, 11/11

10:45am–12:15pm  Panel on “Jazz Movements and Locales”

10:00-11:00pm  SEM Orchestra Concert with jam session following


Roundtable: Global Perspectives on Improvisation and the ‘Traditional’

“Keriz, musical labor and the musical problem of ethno-nationalism”

Dr. Sonia Seeman (Professor, University of Texas at Austin)

I’d like to discuss this issue via the problem of separating improvisation out of performance from the perspective of music-making in Turkey, and the attachment of stigma to those who uphold the messy, less privileged, but highly valued continuities with past musical practices. To tackle this, I will discuss 5 points:

1. The notion of improvisation already pre-supposes a Western European derived canonical model of fixed repertoire items, against which we are comparing variations. This is a problem.

2. Musical practices in Turkey have been caught between discourses of Occidentalist privilege and Orientalist ascriptions during the 20th century ethno-national modernization of the Modern Republic of Turkey. One result of this larger process has been to regularize and regulate musical performances and constrain instrumental-, family- and lineage-based as well as individual variations.

3. However, aesthetics for difference and divergence have still remained part of local aesthetics. In urban, light classical and wedding music those musical aesthetics have been largely maintained by Roman professional musicians. To unpack this, I will trace out the hidden work of Roman musicians as laborers and the value of “keriz”: making melody, which links musical sound to kinetic movement.

4. This case study also reveals the social positioning of outsider groups for maintaining the aesthetic detritus that is at once problematic and necessary for dominant groups. This is problematic because the retention of certain practices rubs against ethno-national state making aesthetics; necessary because those practices also retain for the musicians and their audiences a longer, deeper connection with a sense of communal belonging to the past. In the end, ascribing social marginality to Roman musicians thus allows dominant groups to feel pleasure in the sound while holding disgust for the persons making the sounds.

5. Teaching music from Turkey, or the Middle East for that matter, requires ear training to be able to hear the microtones and the grammar of the various melodic modes, call and response exercises, and heterophony. More than that, teaching music from this area and inviting musicians from abroad to campus also enables communities in the US to experience a fuller picture of groups that have been misunderstood and maligned.


“Free improvisation, altered consciousness, and musical transcendence”

Dr. Paul Austerlitz (Professor, Gettysburg College)

Sometimes I think that ethnomusicology is a victim of its own success. We have become adept at understanding relationships between music and social processes but pay less attention to music’s transcendent power over ourselves as individuals. My strongest memory from graduate school is when David McAllester proclaimed that the central question of our field is the question “What is musical truth?” His 1979 article entitled “The Astonished Ethnomuse” elaborates, and I quote:

We musicologues should realize better than anyone else that music is the art, par excellence, that brings transcendence into the lives of humankind. And we [ethnomusicologists] are among the most informed and expert of the purveyors, technicians, and theoreticians of that transcendence! Most of us are too modest to realize, or even want, our place in the empyrean…We are often even apologetic about being musicians or scholars about music as though it was not real work at the center of human existence (1979:184).

Calling upon insights developed through long-term relationships with Vodou priests such as the late Max Beauvoir and Eroll Josue as well as with my mentor, drummer Milford Graves, I will share scholarly and personal reflections about links between musically-induced altered states of consciousness and Graves’ perspectives on free improvisation as a way to incite discussion about possible theories of musical transcendence.


NPR - Milford Graves: The Music of the Human Heart

Eroll Josue


“Improvising around the Canon: Teaching the History of Jazz in New Zealand”

Dr. Dave Wilson (Lecturer, Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington)

My contribution to this roundtable explores the extent to which historiographies and canons can and often do affect the transmission of improvisation practices. I consider the case of undergraduate jazz history courses whose historiographies may align with, complement, and/or complicate those embedded in other courses on improvisation, performance, and analysis in jazz curricula. Over the past twenty-five years or so, scholars have increasingly challenged and deconstructed conceptions of “the jazz tradition” and “the jazz canon” through historical, ethnographic, and analytical studies of practices and repertoires associated with jazz and jazz education. Historiographic concerns have received particular attention in these discourses, as has the relevant practical matter of the material included in (or excluded from) jazz history courses and textbooks. As a result, jazz history courses may productively offer challenges to “traditional” jazz canons and historiographies in the context of a broader undergraduate jazz studies curriculum.

But what happens when such jazz history courses occur alongside jazz performance, improvisation, and composition curricula that focus on traditional canons? To what extent can these differing ideologies co-exist as complements to one another, and to what extent are they in tension? If, for example, improvisation courses emphasize a traditional canon, can jazz history courses alone open up boundaries for approaches to improvisation outside what is considered traditional, and how? I reflect optimistically on these questions, drawing on my experience teaching jazz history in New Zealand, a setting that can (but does not always) lend itself to the eschewing of North American-centric narratives. By also considering histories of jazz and jazz education in New Zealand, I suggest that understanding local, historically constructed conceptions of jazz vis à vis issues such as class and race is significant in representing a broader jazz history that can inspire modes of improvisation and musicality beyond the limitations of a given canon. My ideas are broadly situated within larger questions about how improvisation traditions are transmitted and how educators grapple with preparing music students for careers after their undergraduate years in worlds of increasing precarity, with implications not only for cultural production but also for individual mental health and wellbeing.






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