Announcing…Sound Breaks – Symposium on Improvisation, Academics, & Social Advocacy

Part of the reason TRoS has seemed quieter this year is because of many, many hours spent with some long term planning that is finely coming to fruition. There are many to thank for their support and hard work thus far, and we’re all excited to publicly share the news about “Sound Breaks”…

“Sound Breaks” will take place on the campus of Swarthmore College on Saturday, April 18, 2015, when invited scholars and performers will visit Swarthmore for a day-long symposium on improvisation and the liberal arts. Students and faculty will explore disciplinary-specific applications of improvisation through a series of workshops and talks to be hosted by several departments across campus, including Black Studies, English, Music & Dance, Philosophy, and Physics. These renowned academic scholar/teacher/performers will visit with and work alongside students in these workshops, drawing together common themes from their research, related Swarthmore course curricula, and the Symposium’s goals. They will share their research on musical improvisation, on applications of improvisation beyond the arts, and on the ethical imperatives of collaborative and community-based research. This integrated approach to academics and advocacy is a hallmark of Swarthmore College’s mission. And so “Sound Breaks” will be a unique opportunity for Swarthmore students to work alongside their faculty and invited scholars from around the U.S. who are modeling the interdisciplinary, community-based work they are taught in classrooms everyday.

Along with Swarthmore faculty and several invited musicians, they will come together for an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion that will precede the culminating performance, led by Indian American pianist and scholar Vijay Iyer. Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, is an exemplar of the promise and value of interdisciplinary research and art. In addition to workshops and panel discussions, the symposium will be headlined by Vijay Iyer, jazz pianist, Harvard professor, and recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Iyer will participate in the day’s activities and lead a double-concert open to the public featuring a performance of his piano trio’s new recording and Tirtha, a trio that performs fusions of jazz and Carnatic music from India. Though the morning workshops are open only to the College community, the panel discussion and, most importantly, the Iyer concert will be open to the public. The symposium has been very generously funded by the Swarthmore College’s Cooper Fund and will be hosted by the College’s Department of Music and Dance.

The following invited guests have already confirmed their participation…

photo by Jimmy Katz

photo by Jimmy Katz

Vijay Iyer is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University. The Grammy-nominated composer-pianist’s most recent honors include a 2013 MacArthur fellowship, a 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, an unprecedented “quintuple crown” in the 2012 Down Beat International Critics Poll (winning Jazz Artist of the Year, Pianist of the Year, Jazz Album of the Year, Jazz Group of the Year, and Rising Star Composer categories), a “quadruple crown” in the JazzTimes extended critics poll (winning Artist of the Year, Acoustic/Mainstream Group of the Year, Pianist of the Year, and Album of the Year), the Pianist of the Year Awards for both 2012 and 2013 from the Jazz Journalists Association, and the 2013 ECHO Award (the “German Grammy”) for best international pianist.

A polymath whose career has spanned the sciences, the humanities and the arts, Iyer received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California, Berkeley. He has published in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Wire, Music Perception, JazzTimesJournal of the Society for American Music, Critical Studies in Improvisation, in the anthologies Arcana IV, Sound Unbound, Uptown Conversation, The Best Writing on Mathematics: 2010, and in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies. Iyer has taught at Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and the New School, and he is the Director of The Banff Centre’s International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, an annual 3-week program in Alberta, Canada founded by Oscar Peterson. Iyer recently finished a multi-year residency with San Francisco Performances, performing and working with schools and community organizations.

Listen to Tirtha here.

The Sound Breaks concert will be the first time ever that Iyer’s trio and Tirtha perform on the same bill. In addition, the concert will serve as the Philadelphia-area premiere of the Trio’s new recording Break Stuff. For more information, watch the video below:

meta jonesMeta DuEwa Jones is an Associate Professor of African American literature at Howard University. She earned her BA with honors in English with a certificate in Afro-American Studies from Princeton University in 1995, an MA in English from Stanford in 1996, and Ph.D. from Stanford University in English and American Literature in 2001. Her research interests include 20th- and 21st-century American poetry and poetics, especially in relationship to gender, sexuality and performance studies; African-American literature, criticism and theory; textual studies; jazz; gender and sexuality studies; and visual culture studies. Her recently published book, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to the Spoken Word (2011), highlights the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within the jazz tradition and its legacy in hip hop. The book focuses on musical, visual, oral and technological performance with a special focus on poets involved in contemporary venues for black writing such as the Dark Room Collective and the Cave Canem Foundation. It recently received honorable mention for the William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association.

Click here to hear Professor Jones reading some of her own work.

omi jonesJoni L. Jones/Omi Osun Olomo (Ph.D., New York University) specializes in performance scholarship that focuses on identity, ethnography, Yoruba-based performance aesthetics, Black Feminisms and Theatre for Social Change. She teaches undergraduate courses in African-American theatre history and the performance of race. At the graduate level she teaches performance ethnography, performing Black Feminisms, Yoruba performance, and performance and activism.

Dr. Jones was a Fulbright Fellow in Nigeria (1997-1998) where she taught at Obafemi Awolowo University and contributed Theatre for Social Change workshops to the Forum on Governance and Democracy in Ile-Ife. Her dramaturgical work includes con flama for Frontera @ Hyde Park Theatre, Clay Angels for New WORLD Theatre in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery and Pill Hill for First Stage Productions in Austin, Texas. In Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C. she has received acting awards for her work in professional theatre. Dr. Jones was the opening plenary performer at the Second Annual Performance Studies Conference at Northwestern University with “sista docta.” That work has also been presented at National Communication Association National Conference, Pedagogy/Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, and the Black Women in the Academy II Conference. Her print scholarship on performance and identity have appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly, Theatre Topics, The Drama Review, Theatre Insight, Theatre Journal, and Black Theatre News. She has served on the Arts Advisory Panel to the College Board, consultant to the Educational Testing Service, chair of the Theatre Board for the National Foundation for the Arts, chair of the Theatre Review Board of the Cultural Contracts Office, parliamentarian for the Black Theatre Network, and member of the Theatre Review Panel for the Texas Commission on the Arts. Dr. Jones was the 1998-1999 recipient of the College of Communication Teaching Excellence Award. In 2000, she completed her tenure as secretary to the Performance Studies Division of the National Communication Association and as executive board member for Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. Her recent book, Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia, and the Austin Project, is—a collaborative venture among women of color artists, scholars and activists and their allies that explores the use of a jazz aesthetic among theatre artists with particular attention to Laurie Carlos, Daniel Alexander Jones, and Sharon Bridgforth.

See Professor Jones’s Blackademics talk, “Sista Docta,” here.

garry hagbergGarry L. Hagberg is the James H. Ottaway Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetics at Bard College. Author of Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aesthetic Theory, and Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge, his most recent book is Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness. He is presently completing a new book, Living in Words: Literature, Autobiographical Language, and the Composition of Selfhood, and editing the volume Fictional Characters, Real Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature. Editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he is also a jazz and classical guitarist, and is co-author with Howard Roberts of the three-volume Guitar Compendium: Technique, Improvisation, Musicianship, Theory. As a guitarist Hagberg has appeared on three albums with Dan Siegel (one, on which he was featured soloist, spent twelve weeks in Billboard’s top ten), three with The Atlantic Jazz Trio, and three with his musical colleague Tom Bergeron; his most recent CD, Garry Hagberg: Quartets was released in Europe in 2014. In 2000 he guest-edited a Special Issue on Improvisation in the Arts of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and in 2011 received an award in jazz instrumental composition for a piece recorded with, among others, bassist Glen Moore and drummer Graham Lear. In addition to the above projects, he is also presently writing a book on aesthetic issues in jazz improvisation.

Professor Hagberg’s lecture for the London Aesthetics Forum, titled “Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aesthetic Theory,” can be viewed here.

StephonAlexanderProfileProfessor Stephon H. Alexander, the E. E. Just Professor of Natural Sciences at Dartmouth is the Director of the E. E. Just Program. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Brown University in 2000, with a dissertation titled “Topics at the Interface between String Theory and Cosmology.” From 2000 to 2002, he held a postdoctoral fellowship from PPARC (the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council of the United Kingdom). He recently won the National Science Foundation CAREER award and was elected a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. His research focuses on unresolved problems— such as the cosmological- constant or dark- energy problem— that connect cosmology to quantum gravity and the standard model of elementary particles. In particular, he uses observations in cosmology to both construct and test fundamental theories.  He is passionate about teaching and researching with students and finding connections between music and science.

Click here to listen to an extended interview on science and creativity with Professor Alexander.

Sound Breaks: Improvisation, Interdisciplinarity, and Social Advocacy – A Performance and Workshop Symposium at Swarthmore College

In jazz music, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man hears the syncopations of a life that follows “a slightly different sense of time.” Recognizing the spaces between the beats in the ordinarily “imperceptible flowing of time,” the Invisible Man uses this awareness to his advantage–to “slip into the breaks and look around.” Writer and cultural theorist Albert Murray later wrote in Stomping the Blues that this “break”–the solo break–is a fundamental part of African American culture, comparing its use in music to “a sentence [that] seems to halt but only pauses at a colon.” The “Sound Breaks” Symposium at Swarthmore College takes this break as its inspiration for a series of workshops and performances that celebrates jazz and improvisation as Ellison, Murray, and others have: as a conceptual space disposed to subversive action yet open to diversity. In this spirit, “Sound Breaks” will feature residencies of internationally renowned musicians, performers, and scholars whose work reflects the intersections among improvisation, art, culture, and social advocacy. The residencies will coincide with several course offerings around the College, especially “Jazz of the Trans-Atlantic African Diaspora” (Fall 2014) and “Traditional Musics of World Cultures” (Spring 2015). In addition to class visits, class meetings with students, and featured performances, visiting artists will participate in interdisciplinary dialogues with Swarthmore faculty and open to the entire campus community.

In her 2009 Baccalaureate speech titled “Improvisation and the Art of the Possible,” Harvard University President Drew Faust described the practical and pedagogical relevance of improvisation to liberal arts education: “We have insisted that the best education is the one that cultivates habits of the mind, an analytic spirit, a capacity to judge and question that will equip you to adapt to any circumstance or take any vocational direction.” The featured events of “Sound Breaks,” then, will provide the context for and form new “breaks,” allowing students to explore the emergent possibilities improvised music can provide for their academic studies, advocacy work, career opportunities, and post-baccalaureate life. As co-authors Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz assert in The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation, “improvisation is not merely an artistic form potentially useful to civil-rights activism, but is also an artistic, political, social, and moral practice that cannot succeed on its own terms unless it does meaningful work in the world.” “Sound Breaks” will introduce the long-term value and promise of improvisation to a liberal arts education at Swarthmore College through a dynamic program of performances and collaborative workshops. Swarthmore is, in fact, uniquely qualified and ideally suited for incubating not only this educational model but also its concomitant ethics of social responsibility.

Stay tuned for more information as the symposium draws closer!


  1. Lovelly blog you have here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: