By Emma Arnesen
On Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) performed students’ original work, combining mathematics, poetry and musical interpretations in eight short musical compositions.
IGLU is an ensemble dedicated to improvising in various musical styles, including rock, 20th century classical, Arabic taqasim, jazz, electronic and Korean sinawi music. In collaboration with Lawrence University’s Creative Writing Club and Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics Luke Wolcott, the musical performance was designed to give the audience a creative outlook in understanding the mathematical experience.
The performance was intended to be a “creative offshoot” of a larger research project of Wolcott’s. In a 2013 survey, he asked students questions such as: “When mathematicians do mathematics, what is it like? What images do they see in their minds, with what colors, shapes or textures? Do mathematical objects make sounds?” The students’ responses were then given to the Creative Writing Club.
Along with Visiting Assistant Professor of English Austin Segrest and Interlibrary Loan Assistant Andrew McSorley, the club’s writers were able to craft six poems that integrated the answers from the survey. As Wolcott mentioned in the performance’s program notes, the poems were then given to IGLU to “serve as a catalyst for musical explorations.”
IGLU is made up of a wide range of students and instruments, from electronics, voice, percussion, to the violin, didgeridoo and trumpet. For each composition, the poem would be read aloud and the instruments would create their own interpretations through musical expression. The instruments acted as a response to the poetry, producing sound effects that were not always traditional. For example, for the first composition, cellist Louis Weissert used his bow to play underneath the bridge, which created a very unique sound.
Similarly for the fourth poem, the reader talked softly into the mic and even used the voice changer to create echoing effects. Even though the music did not necessarily follow a certain pattern and the choice of instruments sometimes clashed, the reader and musical accompaniment were able to fabricate creative sounds and images for the audience.
President of the Lawrence Creative Writing Club Jess Morgan stated that she was somewhat familiar with IGLU’s style of music beforehand, but was pleasantly surprised by the group’s amusing interpretation of some of the poems.
“The musical choices that were made and the way that the speaker presented the character of the poems added an unanticipated humor that I really enjoyed,” Morgan stated.
Morgan’s original poem, “The Images that Math Makes,” was comprised of many different musical expressions. From the classical violin playing along with the improvised strum of the electric guitar and tapping foot on the floor, the group was able to generate images of color, texture, and “fuzzy abstract matter” for the audience members. Even the reader used a piece of paper to cover the mic, adding another distinctive element to the performance.
Morgan explained that she really enjoyed “the liberty [IGLU] took with repeating and adding space between the lines of the poems”. Sometimes the music would overlap and even drown out the speaker, but the layering and timing of the instrumental and voice components expressed the group’s originality and ability to ad-lib the poetry.
Morgan’s familiarity with music and spoken-word poetry from her music and English double major allowed her to appreciate the way the performance incorporated the two different subjects. The musical compositions not only answered the questions to Wolcott’s survey, but also allowed the audience to imagine and feel the different senses produced by the music.
The greatest thing that she learned from the performance, Morgan stated, was “a new awareness of the number of ways that music and language could be used.” Inspired by the outcome of the concert, she stated that she was overcome with ideas for future collaborations with other student organizations. The performance proved to be a success, not only by engaging students with different interests, but by introducing and emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary learning.