On Wednesday, Feb. 19, the Improvisational Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) put on their Winter Term performance in Harper Hall, rather than Esch Hurvis where they have performed the past few terms. Directed by Instructor Music Matt Turner, the group comes together from all areas of the Conservatory, be that strings, brass, woodwind, percussion and even voice. Through IGLU, Lawrence students are able to work on their group improvisational techniques and apply them in an academic setting. Every performance, members play and respond to each other by ear, creating a unique composition every time.
This term, IGLU has been working with live electronic sound manipulation and sampling improvisation. A whole soundboard sat in the front row of Harper Hall, alongside a Mac laptop and mic system, which were eventually utilized by student performer, junior Ben Portzen. Portzen used these instruments to incorporate a whole new layer of sound with the other students in the ensemble.
As the members walked out onstage, they took their places in a semi-circle and Portzen sat down behind his computer in the first row. As per usual, the room settled to a loud silence, as the tension built in the air and kept the audience waiting for something to break it. Then, a low, ambient tone came from the speakers as Portzen got the ball rolling on his computer. This initial tone slowly grew in complexity as it began to vibrate and higher notes resonated through the hall.
As the noise got louder, it began to echo, and at this point, the rest of the ensemble began to join in. First, someone began blowing air through a kazoo, sounding like something close to the wind. Next in was senior Zoe Markle on bass, slowly adding to the eerie soundscape. One by one, members began to join in, entering and exiting as the movement grew amongst the group. This first combined piece drew upon movement of air, as wind and brass players blew not quite enough air through their instruments, resulting in several different qualities of air filling the space. Adding to this effect, the strings began doing something similar, dragging their bows against the strings of the instrument to create a scratching sound. The collaboration became reminiscent of a barren landscape with a chilling breeze blowing through, as Portzen controlled the rise and fall with the computer audio.
The growing tension began to transcend the space of Harper Hall; if one had closed their eyes, the textures created began to take you through space. As the dynamic turned into something off a horror movie track, group members refrained and let the sound dissipate and return to the loud silence they began with. This piece showed how the ensemble was able to integrate into a pre-existing sound and work with it to create something surreal. The concentration of the players was observable when they played; many eyes were closed, completely tuned into the music, blocking out anything else other than their peers and their sound.
After the piece was done, Turner called out names of members to form a small group to perform. Each of these groups was joined by Portzen with computer audio. The group would start, and he would record parts of their playing through the mics on stage. Then, he would take this audio and incorporate it into that same performance where the other members would build on-top of what they had already created.
IGLU then ended with another collaborative group piece. This one started much more alive than the first, opening with an energetic beat from senior Caro Granner and junior Alex Medina. In this arrangement, Portzen did something similar to what he had done in the small groups: playing back fragments of the ensemble for them to then merge back into. It worked similar to a call and response between himself and the rest of the ensemble. Eventually, the piece exploded into a jungle of noise where no one sound could be distinguished from the next. And then, silence.
IGLU’s next performance will be in Spring Term, on Wednesday, May 13, in Harper Hall.