Sound Breaks 2015

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Sound Breaks: Improvisation, Interdisciplinarity, and Social Advocacy
A Performance and Workshop Symposium at Swarthmore College,
Saturday, April 18, 2015

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.


“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.

Schedule – Saturday, April 18, 2015

9:30-11:45am – Student workshops with invited guests and Swarthmore Faculty, Lang Music Building (open to Swarthmore College community only)

4:00pm – Roundtable discussion with invited guests, including Vijay Iyer, Lang Concert Hall
(free and open to public)

8:00pm – Double-concert with Vijay Iyer Trio and Tirtha, Lang Performing Arts Center
(free and open to public)

10:00pm – Late night concert with the Kelly Powers Trio, Rose Tree Restaurant (free and open to public)

For a full schedule of events, please visit the Sound Breaks schedule page.


Stephon Alexander, Physics, Dartmouth University
Rachel Carrico, Dance Studies, Univ. of California Riverside
Gary Hagberg, Philosophy, Bard College
Vijay Iyer, Music, Harvard University
Omi Osun Joni Jones, African and African Diaspora Studies, Univ. of Texas at Austin
Meta DuEwa Jones, English, Howard University
Kelly Powers, Music, Manhattan School of Music

For more information on these invited guests and the Swarthmore faculty collaborators, please visit the participants’ page.


The Sound Breaks 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, with additional support from the Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts. Special thanks to Maurice Eldridge (Vice President for College and Community Relations, Executive Assistant to the President, and Co-President of the Cooper Fund), James Murphy (Managing Director of the Lang Center of the Performing Arts), Barbara Milewski (Chair of the Department of Music and Dance), Don Lucoff and DL Media, Andrew Hauze, Bernadette Dunning, June Cianfranca, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Richard Eldridge, Carl Grossman, Peter Schmidt, Anthony Foy, Pamela Shropshire, Yvonne Chireau, Tristan Smith, and Tim Burke.


  1. I greatly appreciate the thought put into this symposium and am excited to attend the roundtable discussion. But the fact that the day culminates in multiple jazz performances, including a free performance by the Vijay Iyer Trio (one of the most innovative, must-see acoustic jazz trios today), is a gift to the College and the community. Thank you.

  2. I enjoyed this remarkable symposium, and especially the double concert with Vijay Iyer. It was a real contrast in performance to experience his work with Tirtha and the Vijay Iyer Trio. I wish that I had had more time to take part in the academic aspects of this symposium within an integrated intellectual environment at the roundtable, but I will look forward to the recording of the event. This was truly a rare and wonderful collaboration, thank you Mark.

  3. […] justice and inclusion of panel discussions, two additions that resonate deeply with my work as teacher, writer, and soon—in a new collaborative […]

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