Improvisational Music & Deep Listening at Lawrence

Last weekend, Sept. 23 and 24, Improvisational LU, a two-day music festival fo-cusing on improvised music and deep listening was hosted by senior Sam Genualdi and junior Izzy Yellen. The purpose of the festival was to highlight an underrepresented genre as well as to give students who are not in the Conservatory a chance to hear something they do not normally listen to. The instruments involved include guitar, drums, rap, beat boxing, electronic music, synthesizing and vocals.

The festival focused on improvisational music across all genres, as long as it was fundamentally unplanned and in the moment. However, to the artists and organizers of the festival, improvisational music involves so much more on both a larger scale and a personal level. Genualdi and Yellen agree that improvisational music is often overlooked and should have more representation on campus.

“Whether you are playing or listening to improvised music, there is a sense of creative energy because you are taking risks,” Genualdi commented. Improvisational music has a “very human aspect with the respect that it is tightly connected to emotion and movement,” adds Yellen.

At Lawrence, improvisational music has always been a central part of the jazz curriculum in the Conservatory, but now there are more opportunities to study non-jazz improvisation, especially through classes with Lecturer of Music Matt Turner. He also is the director of Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU). “In the past three years student participation in IGLU has grown from 15 to 45!” exclaims Dean of the Conservatory of Music Brian Pertl.

The festival also highlights a special area within improvisational music—the practice of active deep listening, a philosophy founded by pioneer composer Pauline Oliveros and integrated significantly into the music education at Lawrence. “For [Oliveros], deep listening is a lifelong practice that she participates in 24 hours a day,” said Pertl. “As deep listening has evolved, it includes three main areas: listening in the world, listening in dreams and listening through movement [body awareness.]”

“Deep listening is essentially listening to anything and everything no matter what and the merging of meditation with music and sound,” said Yellen.

“For me, deep listening is being aware of any sounds at any given moment and using it to help him in every aspect of his life,” said Genualdi. “It’s personal.”

For those who are not familiar with deep listening, Genualdi suggested going for a walk and “[noticing] sounds and their relation to one another, come to it with a curious attitude.”
Yellen, on the other hand, advises students to jump right in.

In the Conservatory, improvisation and deep listening have been combined together in many different art forms. Improvisation and deep listening are integrated in Instructor of Dance Margaret Paek’s courses, Director of Opera Studies and Associate Professor of Music Copeland Woodruff’s curriculum, music education classes, various studios, music theory and Pertl’s Entrepreneurial Musician course. This term opera studies is a collaboration between IGLU and the Dance Program to produce short student-created improvisational operas centered on America’s relationship with guns. In Spring Term, Pertl and Music Education Instructor Leila Pertl will offer a three-unit course entitled Deep Listening Lab.

“Even environmental science majors can find deeper connections with nature through deep listening,” said Pertl about the expanding parameters of deep listening in our lives.

Recently, a student organization called Deep Listeners of Lawrence University (DLLU) have weekly meetings where students can come in and are guided through deep listening exercises. Some of the exercises involve text scores from a few sentences to paragraphs such as recording and listening to your breath then listening to other people’s breaths then merging the two together to produce an organic sound.

Improvisational music and deep listening are not solely just for Conservatory students. According to Yellen, although he is not a music major, improvisational music especially keeps his stress levels down and allows him to think clearly and have a sense of awareness.

Improvisation music is worth listening to because it challenges the norm of written and composed music. It is waiting to have a voice and be heard, much like most of us. Give improvisational music a chance and perhaps it can become part of your daily life as well.

On the other hand, deep listening can be beneficial to anyone. “Deep listening gives your brain the space to do what it does best—make connections, create, and dream.” Pertl commented, “In our hectic, too-busy world, taking the time to be quiet and listen is increasingly important.”