Music Perspective / Preview: The Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory – “Where the Borders Disappear”

The Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation program is one of the best things we have in New England music, and if you’ve lived for any length of time in the Boston area without attending one of its concerts, you’ve missed an important experience.

By Steve Elman

Hankus Netsky

CI’s Hankus Netsky — he throws out sparks in every direction, with enthusiasm, optimism, and energy that seem boundless.

“Genres” in music are reactions to its reality. They reflect the fact that no one, not even a full-time musician, has the time or inclination to listen to everything there is to hear. With music, as with everything else, we compartmentalize in order to make sense of the world and in order to communicate with each other about our preferences.

Do we love “Clair de lune” by Debussy? We must be oriented towards classical music – even pigeonholed into “Impressionism” or “classical piano” as sub-genres. Do we love the Duke Ellington / John Coltrane recording of “In a Sentimental Mood”? Obviously, we are jazz fans, and the algorithms of the web will steer us to jazz ballads. Do we think that Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” is a masterpiece? Or Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”? Or Jay-Z’s “Never Change”? Or Steve Reich’s “Tehillim”? Or Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”? Or James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”? Or the traditional song “Shenandoah”? Or the Rolling Stones’s “Rock and a Hard Place”? Or Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”? Each of them alone would characterize us sufficiently for the marketplace.

But what if we love them all – or even just three or four of them? Amazon’s recommendations for us will be all over the map, and most of them will be wildly inappropriate.

Now imagine a young musician with all or many of those loves. How can he or she meld those disparate interests into an aesthetic philosophy, much less a career?

For more than forty years, the New England Conservatory has been trying to answer that question with its Contemporary Improvisation program, birthed and named by Gunther Schuller as its Third Stream Department.

Over its lifetime, Third Stream / Contemporary Improvisation has had just two chairs – pianist Ran Blake (35 years) and multi-instrumentalist Hankus Netsky (five years). It has been my privilege to know, hear, and talk with both of them throughout the life of the program. I admire them both as human beings, and I have been so often moved by what they, their alumni, and their students have accomplished musically that I’ve had to work hard to avoid turning this post into a Big Wet Kiss.

But I think I can say objectively that CI is one of the best things we have in New England music, and if you’ve lived for any length of time in the Boston area without attending one of its concerts, you’ve missed an important experience.

Not that Jordan Hall is jammed with teeming masses when CI puts on one of its musical circuses. My educated guess is that not one in ten thousand New Englanders even knows what CI is or what it does. Here are some statistics that sober my enthusiasm, but do not daunt Blake or Netsky in the least: Currently, CI has about 40 students. Over the life of the program, it has graduated no more than 1500 students – probably the total is closer to 1200. This is about one-third the number of students who have graduated in NEC’s Jazz Studies program in that time, and about one-half of one percent of NEC’s alumni from the past 40 years. When compared to the number of students who have graduated from Berklee in the same period – somewhere around 50,000 – CI’s market penetration is laughable. And these figures don’t even contemplate the hordes who have graduated from music programs over the past four decades at Boston University, MIT, Harvard, Brandeis, Tufts, Longy, and the Boston Conservatory, just to name a few institutions that come to mind immediately.

So when NEC president Tony Woodcock took over in 2007, it must have been a surprise for even seasoned NEC-watchers to hear him say (as quoted by Hankus Netsky), “We’ve got to be a 21st-century music school. Does this school have something special? It does. Contemporary Improvisation is it.” And Woodcock believed in the CI program to the extent of spotlighting it throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, even sponsoring a CI workshop in improvisation for NEC’s trustees.

Ran Blake

Ran Blake — not all mavericks are great communicators, but he proved to be as effective (and unconventional) with students.

Setting aside the program’s 40th anniversary, which was a convenient publicity peg last year, 2012-13 was a coming-of-age milestone for CI. Gunther Schuller has said that when he came to the presidency of the Conservatory and announced a six-year program in jazz studies, jazz was looked on by many NEC faculty and administrators as “a degraded, degenerate music,” and when he proposed a department to house hybrid experiments between jazz and classical, he lost people who wanted no part of his vision. Netsky noted that even in the past ten years, CI has never had what might be called full legitimacy within NEC’s walls.

But things are different now. Netsky dubs it the place “where the borders disappear.” Woodcock and he believe it can prosper as a home for creative musicians who want to transcend genre. Despite the relentless pressure of the business to turn music into a commodity for instant consumption and quick disposal, they may see something no one else does. The wired world has nurtured the blooming of a million musical flowers (even if most of them tend to wither in weeks), and it’s possible that a larger and larger number of younger musicians are going to be looking for a border-free place to go beyond what they already know.

Case in point: Netsky cited to me the experience of Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, who was signed to a recording contract while still in high school, and who was nominated for a Grammy while she was a freshman at NEC.

Someone might ask, ‘What’s she doing in music school?’ Answer: she wanted an education in music. While here [at NEC], she did Austin City Limits and the Grand Old Opry and Prairie Home Companion, but that’s not her education. Early on, she asked me, ‘Why am I studying counterpoint?’ By her junior year, she was taking advanced counterpoint as an elective. She studied for a year with [guitarist / composer/ NEC faculty member] Joe Morris, working on her mandolin improvising, and when she played Ornette Coleman’s ‘Ramblin’’ at a concert, it brought the house down. [Without this broadening of her horizons] she would have been pigeonholed – but she wanted to do much more.

Another case: CI alumna Carla Kihlstedt, a songwriter, singer, violinist, composer, and entrepreneur. When I spoke with him, Netsky pointed to her as a model of the New Musician, someone who not only performs, composes, improvises, and interprets, but also markets herself – and presto, within a couple of weeks, an illuminating feature by Allan Kozinn about her Rabbit Rabbit Radio site appeared in the New York Times. (Kozinn didn’t mention her background at CI, but let’s let that pass.)

In that same discussion, Netsky repeatedly praised his fellow faculty members, and he had especially warm words for pianist Anthony Coleman, a contemporary figure with the potential to ascend into that hallowed circle of Teachers that Everyone Remembers. Coleman has refined his personal aesthetic over decades of club and concert performances here and in New York, and he surprised me in the past couple of years with his very-CI exploration of the music of Jelly Roll Morton, performed at Jordan and also recorded in a superb CD (“Freakish,” Tzadzik 2009). On the program’s website, Coleman addresses prospective students, describing one aspect of CI’s ear training:

“You will be assigned a set of recorded melodies, from many different musical traditions, to be sung from memory. This memorization is done solely by ear, allowing you to assimilate the details of each different style and absorb not only the superficial characteristics but also the deeper emotional and spiritual aspects of each piece.”

Coleman is the type of faculty person Netsky especially values. He says that his teachers must be career performers as well as great classroom communicators. And he repeatedly describes his ideal graduates as “compleat” in the old sense of the word, in the sense that Gunther Schuller uses it: the working musician who engages with real audiences; the composer who brings valuable new music into the world; the interpreter who refashions and reimagines music that he or she encounters; and the master improviser, able to create profound art spontaneously.

Netsky pointed to other schools with broad-based approaches, but he emphasized that that ear training is the key to CI’s distinctive qualities. He admires Myra Melford’s work at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Dresser’s program at UC San Diego, but:

Other schools might have the attitude of, ‘OK, let’s play.’ What we have that’s unique is the emphasis on skills. [CI students must take] four semesters of harmony. They need to have a tremendous amount of practical training, ear training. We want them to be able to figure out what’s being played without even going to the piano. That’s Ran’s legacy.

Hankus teaching

Hankus Netsky in the classroom — he emphasizes that ear training is the key to CI’s distinctive qualities.

Oh, yes. It all comes back to Ran Blake, an artist so revered at the Conservatory that only three letters are needed to say a mouthful.

I well remember Blake’s early days at NEC. In the wide world of music criticism, he was considered a marginal artist, someone with an unconventional approach to the mechanics of the piano and an extraordinary range of influences – so many, and from so many different musical places, that a number of critics declared him to be outside of the jazz tradition, and he himself had doubts about where he belonged. Schuller had no such doubts. He knew art when he heard it, and to accommodate Blake’s encyclopedic approach, he created the Third Stream Department to give Blake a musical base from which he could engage creatively with NEC’s students.

Not all mavericks are great communicators, but Blake proved to be as effective (and unconventional) with students as he was on the concert stage. From the very beginning, he emphasized the primacy of the ear (which, incidentally, is the title of his recent book). His students had to know when they were hearing seventh chords, and ninth chords, and eleventh chords, and what’s more, they needed to internalize the emotional gravity of those numbers. They had to live their music away from scores and rote memorization and exercises designed to facilitate improvisation in every key. The skills he taught were not directly oriented towards jobs in the music business, but for those students who could hear what he had to say, Blake became an icon, and he’s now always mentioned in the same breath as the legendary teachers of the Jazz Studies program, including Jimmy Giuffre, Jaki Byard, George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, and Steve Lacy. His students – including Ricky Ford, Dominique Eade, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Bert Seager, and Claire Ritter, just to mention some of the better-known – never represented a type or a style, but rather exemplified people who went their own way, for better or worse.

Blake built an ever-widening circle of acquaintances in the city, not least because of his compulsively hospitable personality, his love of good food, and his delight in intellectual discovery of all kinds. Since establishing himself in Boston, he’s made dozens of recordings, toured extensively, received a MacArthur Foundation grant, and earned a lifetime achievement award from NEC’s alumni association. But there is no more significant measure of the acceptance of his artistic vision and his status as a master than the ovation he receives whenever he steps onto the stage at Jordan Hall. That’s what love sounds like.

It’s a mark of the wisdom of NEC’s leaders that they tried to find a different kind of a leader when Blake retired as CI chair. Hankus Netsky, himself a product of NEC and someone who’d learned much of his eclectic approach from Schuller and Blake, had followed a different muse and established himself as one of the pioneers in the revival of Klezmer music (and he remains so today, working regularly in concert programs he designs with Itzhak Perlman). He understood and respected the original idea of the Third Stream Department as a place between classical and jazz, but he knew that many other artistic traditions could be incorporated into that work, and he set about to expand the program’s reach, inviting singer-songwriters, dancers, poets, and musicians from non-Western traditions to learn and to teach.

Netsky is as strong a personality as Blake, but he has a very different style. Blake’s passion is introverted and carefully channeled, but Netsky throws out sparks in every direction, with enthusiasm, optimism, and energy that seem boundless.

This year, he is joined for the first time by an Assistant Chair, Eden MacAdam-Somer, and her story is another remarkable tale. Here’s how Netsky told me about it:

She came here from Houston about four years ago to pursue her doctorate at NEC. As soon as she came in the door and did her audition, I saw the future. One of the things she did to dazzle us was the [Ralph] Vaughan Williams songs for violin and voice. She played and sang them simultaneously, and provided improvised interludes out of the English folk music tradition. She is what Gunther Schuller would call ‘a compleat musician.’ She’s a violin virtuoso who knows many fiddling styles – old-timey, Appalachian, Romanian, etc. She’s a wonderful composer. And a great singer. What she wanted to do was fill out her musical abilities with improvising, working on the jazz tradition. Right away I put her together with other students. They formed a group, Sail Away Ladies, with Sarah Jarosz, Ari Friedman, and Mia Friedman. She also partnered with Robert Cogan, one of NEC’s great theory teachers, and went to Europe to play his music. She represents another generation – she’s in her early 30s. She provides a continuity that we can all agree on here.

MacAdam-Somer will give her first recital as Assistant Chair at Jordan Hall on September 12 at 8 PM. The program as announced is to include music by Thelonious Monk, Ran Blake, Toru Takemitsu, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Sufi poet Rumi, and that’s not even the first of this season’s CI events (see below for a summary).

Eden Macadam Somer

Assistant Chair Eden MacAdam-Somer — she provides an invaluable sense of continuity.

But this isn’t a new development. For decades CI’s living, breathing work has been beautifully displayed at Jordan Hall, Brown Hall, Pierce Hall, and performance spaces outside the NEC orbit. Last year’s 40th anniversary season was merely one of the best, with events at clubs, in New York City, and at all the halls mentioned above. I was only able to attend five of them, but each one provided me with vivid memories:

Item: Dominique Eade’s performance at Jordan Hall on October 11, 2012 was dazzling, with saxophonist Allan Chase, pianists Tim Ray and Joe Berkovitz, and fellow faculty members guitarist Brad Shepik and bassist John Lockwood. It included a capella performances of music by Hildegard von Bingen and Conlon Nancarrow; a medley of Thelonious Monk’s “Skippy” and the tune on which it was constructed, “Tea for Two”; lovely originals by Eade; and a very slight ditty by Cahn and Van Heusen that she elevates superbly, “The Tender Trap.” (At Scullers on February 9, 2013, with guest artist tenor player Donny McCaslin, she did much of the same material, again brilliantly.)

Item: A concert by the NEC Jazz Orchestra in November 2012, led by Ken Schaphorst and co-curated with Netsky, included superb execution of Charles Mingus’s demanding “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” Steve Lacy’s rarely-played “Worms,” and George Russell’s “All About Rosie,” in which pianist Nikolaos Anadolis courageously set aside the precedent of Bill Evans’s landmark solo in the original recording and played his own thing.

Item: A double-barreled delight on February 19, 2013 started with a panel of Schuller, Netsky, Blake, and Allan Chase, an NEC grad who is now Chair of Ear Training at Berklee. They gave the attendees their personal histories of the program’s ups and downs – and some helpful info for yours truly in preparing this post. On that evening, CI presented one of its encyclopedic musical extravaganzas, including a very committed reading of Charles Ives’ “In the Inn,” conducted by MacAdam-Somer; a realization of the Red Hot Peppers’ version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Grandpa’s Spells,” led by Anthony Coleman, a revival of Mingus’s landmark “Revelations,” conducted by Netsky; Ilya Portnov’s arrangement of two African-American prison songs, which took very traditional materials and reframed them into something fresh and illuminating; a spellbinding interpretation of a Chinese melody by Dongqing Fang, led by gu zheng player Hui Weng, adding strings, drums and voices; and, of course, a Ran Blake solo.

And oh, what I missed. But that doesn’t matter now, because we stand the start of a new academic year and it’s time to salivate over this year’s NEC offerings.

Tomorrow, on September 7, CI’s season begins with what’s billed as a “World Barn Dance for All Ages,” a survey of social folk dances – ceilidhs, contradances, square dances, etc. – at Brown Hall, including opportunities for the audience members to learn the dances and do some dancing themselves. It begins at 7 p.m., and it’s preceded by a fiddle workshop.

On September 12, at Jordan at 8 p.m., it’s MacAdam-Somer’s recital, as noted above.

On October 25, at 2 p.m., Netsky will sit down with singer-songwriter Elvis Costello on the Jordan stage for a public discussion of his work (Costello will workshop with NEC students earlier in the day.)

On November 5 at 8 p.m., again at Jordan, it’s CI’s annual film night, with Ran Blake, Aaron Hartley, the Storyboard Noir Ensemble, CI faculty and student performers. This year, they present screened scenes from Otto Preminger’s Laura, one of the most operatic of films noirs, accompanying and adding to them with “a real-time original score,” including some of the themes written for the film by David Raksin.

Elvis Costello will on October 25th. Photo: Danny Clinch

Elvis Costello will sit down for a public discussion of his career and music at NEC on October 25th. Photo: Danny Clinch.

And in April, the master of avant-garde eclecticism, John Zorn, comes to NEC for a week-long residency, working with students and then presenting a concert of his works on April 14, co-curated with Anthony Coleman, at Jordan at 8 p.m..

One more thing to put on your calendar, though it’s not officially a CI event: On April 17, again at Jordan, and again at 8 p.m., Ken Schaphorst conducts the NEC Jazz Orchestra in a celebration of the centennial of Sun Ra, with re-creations of Arkestra favorites and landmarks, including “Call for All Demons” and “Space Is the Place.”

Will Bostonians turn out in droves? For Costello, no doubt there’ll be a big house, with a lot of Berklee students coming down Mass Ave for the discussion. For Laura, probably another good crowd. But for the other events, and for many of the other worthy offerings at NEC, (and at Berklee, the Boston Conservatory, and the other music schools in the area), probably not so many. Of course, the primary purpose of music education is education, and attracting audiences for faculty and student concerts is a secondary matter. But New Englanders are missing a vast resource of exciting performances when they overlook what’s on offer from the academic side – and especially when most of those events are free.

When I say “exciting,” I’m not being hyperbolic. I have rarely been as consistently excited by musical offerings as I have by CI events at Jordan Hall. I’ve learned to give myself over to the concept at hand and to trust the musicians on stage, and I usually walk out with neurons newly stretched.

Does everything work? No. Probably only two-thirds of CI’s performed experiments are successful, and maybe only a quarter are thrillingly great. But the experience of walking the tightrope with these musicians is like nothing else esthetic in my life.

I don’t know whether Netsky is right about CI’s rosy future. Will future NEC presidents embrace the “between the genres” mission as enthusiastically as Tony Woodcock has? Will the atomized music audience, now so used to getting whatever it wants whenever it wants it, seek out music that’s designed to open doors rather than to close them? Will CI’s mission spread out to so many genres that it will lose its distinctive character? And will students value and use what they learn at CI after they leave?

Netsky offers a caution to every aspiring musician: “The industry is not looking out for your education. They’re looking at you as a commodity, hoping you won’t change.” He wants to lead the way in what he sees as true education, helping new artists embark on and embrace a life of change. I know he and his colleagues at CI have the energy to succeed in that mission, and I hope that they do.

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.

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