Improvisations meet field recordings: a conversation between the natural and the virtual

The Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) constantly pushes the boundaries of performance. Through music, movement and sound, they often dig into topics otherwise not explored by traditional ensembles. For that reason, they are one of my favorite ensembles on campus; not one of their performances is the same. 

At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 10 in Harper Hall, they offered another round of interesting themes, joined by two esteemed electronic artists: alum Sam Scranton ’03 and Nick Meryhew. Both Chicago-based luminaries pride themselves on crafting idiosyncratic soundscapes, constantly experimenting and evolving. Their craft went in tandem with IGLU’s goals as an ensemble. 

Before a single performer even walked onstage, I was enthralled by the stage’s set-up. A harp, piano, saxophone, bass guitar, drums, cellos and other traditional instruments were placed around a central table; on it was a monstrously wired synthesizer.  

The Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) performs with Sam Scranton ’03 and Nick Meryhew on Wednesday, May 10 in Harper Hall. Screenshot from livestream.

Once the performers filed on, Scranton and Meryhew began to explain the program’s main feature: field recordings. Often characterized by their natural sounds, field recordings are any type of recording that happens outside of a recording studio, typically in nature. Normally, they feature sounds of water, leaves, birds and crickets. 

However, what differentiates Wednesday’s performance from these traditional notions is how IGLU and the guest artists employed virtual textures to portray an appropriately postmodernist reality. Specifically, Scranton and Meryhew guided student performers to investigate how to mimic animals’ call-and-response between these different planes. 

The first of the three improvisations leaned heavily into the digital. Performers knocked on their instruments, beating and dropping them intentionally. Scranton and Meryhew toyed and tinkered with their synths, casting waves of plasticky, abrasive noise across Harper Hall. It was especially difficult to decipher which textures were organic and which were digital in this first improvisation. 

Additional voice memos murmured deadpan underneath the cacophony. Various YouTube videos were also pulled up on performers’ phones. On occasion, some semblance of organization arose, but it was almost always fragmented by some abstract synth arpeggio or abrasive instrumental choice. 

The second improvisation relied more on animalistic, natural call-and-response ideas. Performers continued to knock on their instruments, but these touches illustrated a much different picture. It was much more tuneful, concentrated on one key, harmonies poking through like bird calls in a forest.  

Questions were posed in minor passages, answered with open strings and even sometimes silence. I want to especially highlight the piano and percussion performance here. They kept a steady current thumping underneath the fluttering of the other instruments, almost like a heartbeat.  

The final improvisation had no score, meaning it was completely improvised rather than relying on preset ideas and themes. As a result, it acted as a natural finale, intertwining both the natural and virtual elements featured throughout the program. Truly, it married these elements; the digital voices returned, accompanied by harsher, animalistic instrumentals.  

It was an exciting last leg of the performance. I felt as though the sounds here perfectly inhabited a liminal space between reality and digital spaces. It also provided a catharsis for the performers: bows were shredded, screams were echoed and dissonance circulated the entire hall.  

While we were plunged into this virtual dystopia, I was strangely filled with a sense of familiarity. This is how our current existence operates, crackling between technology and physicality. IGLU, Scranton and Meryhew did a wonderful job of capturing what lies in that translation, leaving me smiling until the last clap. How harrowing.