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‘Inform and shape’

World-renowned Indigenous musicians to explore improvisation as model for change

By Jeff Green

Memorial is set to welcome the Norwegian composer who penned the choral opening of the Oscar-winning film Frozen and a Grammy-nominated Mohawk cellist as part of an international conference.

The Indigenous Improvisation Colloquium takes place July 4-5 on the St. John’s campus. Indigenous musicians and scholars from around the globe are set to discuss issues ranging from improvisation, musical ownership and cultural exchange. The event is free and open to the public.

“Keynote speakers include Navajo composer Raven Chacon and Tagish art curator Candice Hopkins as well as Hopi lawyer and composer Trevor Reed,” said Dr. Beverley Diamond, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and professor emerita, School of Music, who is known for her research on Indigenous music cultures.

Dr. Beverley Diamond
Dr. Beverley Diamond
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Participants also include Cree cellist Cris Derksen; Anishnabe artist and theorist Dolleen Manning; Mohawk composer and Grammy nominee Dawn Avery, whose recent work in environmental theatre has received rave reviews; and Frode Fjellheim, a Sámi composer from Norway most famous for his contributions to the movie Frozen, but also adept at an improvised singing tradition rooted in the tradition of yoik.

“An international Indigenous panel and discussion of historical issues, collaboration and genre mixing are not to be missed,” added Dr. Diamond.

She is co-organizing the colloquium along with Dr. Ellen Waterman, professor and graduate program officer, School of Music, who is a flutist specializing in creative improvisation.

Dr. Ellen Waterman
Dr. Ellen Waterman
Photo: Submitted

They say the event will help recognize Indigenous contributions to major improvisation fields such as jazz and experimental music. Participants will also gain a better understanding of how Indigenous values and concerns may reflect in unexpected mixes of genres and sounds.

Musical responsibility

The colloquium will also highlight the many responsibilities that musical practices carry within Indigenous cultures and how musicians carry those forward.

The event is co-sponsored by Memorial, the Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media and Place (MMaP), and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI).

“IICSI is a partnered research institute across six institutions: the University of Guelph, McGill, the University of Regina, the University of British Columbia, Memorial University and the Centre for Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara,” explained Dr. Waterman, who is also the IICSI site co-ordinator at Memorial.

“IICSI’s aim is to explore improvisation as a model for social change and we work with 56 researchers internationally, and 30 community partners. IICSI is funded by a SSHRC Partnership Grant.”

1/ Raven Chacon

Raven Chacon is a composer of chamber music, a performer of experimental noise music, an installation artist and a member of the American Indian arts collective Postcommodity. He lives and works in Albuquerque, N.M. He is one of the keynote speakers at the Indigenous Improvisation Colloquium.

Photo: Submitted

2/ Candice Hopkins

Candice Hopkins is a curator and writer originally from Whitehorse, Yukon, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She is co-curator of the forthcoming SITE Santa Fe biennial, Casa Tomada, opening in August, and was a part of the curatorial team for documenta 14 in Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany. She is one of the keynote speakers at the Indigenous Improvisation Colloquium.

Photo: Submitted

3/ Trevor Reed

Trevor Reed is an associate professor of law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. His current areas of research include Indigenous intellectual property rights; urban Indigenous performance and identity; and sound perception/hearing within d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. He is one of the keynote speakers at the Indigenous Improvisation Colloquium.

Photo: Submitted

‘Tradition as inspiration’

Dr. Diamond says it made sense to partner with IICSI and MMaP to hold the colloquium.

“Most people think of Indigenous music stereotypically as “tradition” and don’t realize the historical and contemporary contributions made to practices such as improvisation,” she said during an interview with the Gazette.

“The discussions of improvisation frequently focus more on “freedom” without thinking about the various cultural practices that inform and shape improvisation. These may range from very disciplined teaching of the skills in, for example, Arabic classical music or indeed jazz, to adapting repertoire to new occasions or sociopolitical needs. Indigenous musicians may use tradition as inspiration rather than sound, or use traditional instruments in new ways.”

Contemporary performers

Several of the artists travelling to Memorial for the colloquium will also perform at this year’s Sound Symposium, which begins July 5 and includes performances by a variety of musicians, including many members of the university community.

Drs. Diamond and Waterman say both events provide an incredible opportunity for local audiences to hear creative calibre of contemporary Indigenous performers.

The Indigenous Improvisation Colloquium takes place July 4-5 in the MMaP Gallery, located on the second floor of the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, please contact Dr. Waterman.

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