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These Kansas City musicians are just making it up as they go along — but that's the plan

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Courtesy of ensemble
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newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

There’s nothing more pure and unfettered than improvisation, from a child’s first babblings to the wild strains of Kansas City's Charlie “Bird” Parker, a legendary jazz innovator during the 1940s and ‘50s.

But improvisation shows up in many art forms. During the 18th and 19th centuries, classical performers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Clara Schumann, or Ludwig van Beethoven would never have dreamed of performing a written out cadenza. That was an artist’s time to shine — and improvise.

Sometimes, improvisation is based on existing information, whether it's a melody or established “rules” defined by a composer or collective. Free improvisation erases those barriers, constrained only by one’s facility with an instrument (though if you’re a real go-getter, not even then).

Something transcendent happens when performers establish a trusting and responsive listening environment between each other and their audience, leaning into happy accidents and exploring new worlds of sound.

The coming months bring a range of improvised music events to Kansas City, explained by a few of the voices breaking boundaries on the daily.

Experimental

Kansas City has fostered an experimental music scene loosely tied to the UMKC Conservatory and Kansas City Art Institute for decades.

The forerunners of the current improv scene
are Black Crack Revue. Local conduits to the legacy of Sun Ra, their music combines elements of jazz, new age, electronica and poetry. The group just celebrated the ensemble’s 40th anniversary in July. They'll be performing at the World Culture Fest on September 10.

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Steven Mark Johnson
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Black Crack Revue

Some of those originators also founded newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in 1993.

newEar’s current cellist is Sascha Groschang, co-host of Classical KC’s Sound Currents, and she improvises in a variety of settings, from church music to rock 'n' roll to classical.

“We often have pieces that have improv sections, or sections that are fairly loose. We might get chord changes, or we might just get written instructions that will change from performance to performance,” says Groschang.

newEar celebrates its 30th anniversary this season with 30 concerts, many featuring music by Kansas City composers. Some of those works, such as Nick Omiccioli’s “Haunted Seas,” include improvised elements.

Kansas City musicians also welcome visiting artists as collaborators. Avant-garde percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani has developed an intriguing solo improvisation style and intense gong orchestra technique. Based in New Mexico, he’s a frequent visitor to Kansas City and has established a rapport with some local aficionados. On Sept. 29, he performs with Jeff Harshbarger, Mike Stover and Shawn Hansen at The Ship.

Improvisation

Improvisation is a creative tool, especially among collaborators with a shared vision, allowing musicians to put their own creative stamp on a performance. Groschang and her Sound Currents co-host Laurel Parks use improvisation when developing work for their duo The Wires. As an instructor, Parks uses “micro-improvisation” with her fiddle students, encouraging them to alter tunes a little differently each time they play them.

For more than 10 years, composer and pianist Brad Cox facilitated the People’s Liberation Big Band. COVID-19 forced the group into a sudden hiatus, though Cox thinks of it as “an extended version of John Cage’s 4’33"."

“I think we are roughly halfway through the second movement at this point,” he says.

In the early 20th century, the budding movie industry required in-house musicians to perform during silent films. Many, including Kansas City composer and pianist Virgil Thomson, improvised to the action on screen, enhancing the emotional content.

In that vein, members of the People’s Liberation Big Band periodically created original music with a mix of written score and ensemble improvisation for classic silent films, like Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 “Battleship Potemkin” and short films by Vladislav Starevich, which were early examples of stop motion animation. (Classical KC’s Sam Wisman is a member of the ensemble.)

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Larry Kopitnik
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People's Liberation Big Band

On Oct. 20, Cox and cohort Jeff Harshbarger will improvise to a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1924 “The Cameraman,” part of the weekend Keaton celebration at the 1900 Building. They’ll use themes from the 1924 collection “Motion Picture Moods,” for the basis of their improvisations.

The impulse of experimentation still rings at UMKC, with IMP Ensemble, a student group that creates and performs their own improvisation-based compositions. The group is currently led by composer Kwan Leung Ling.

Ling recently performed as one of the soloists for the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “The Five Muses of Dunhuang.”

“Tan Dun asked me to add some traditional Chinese wind and percussion ensemble playing technique into his melody, so that the music would go between the ancient and metaverse dimension,” says Ling.

Tan had Ling improvise on the theme of the first movement on his bili, a traditional Chinese double reed flute, to connect with the second movement. “He emphasized that 'touching' is the main goal of your improvisation — I was imagining a gigantic ancient painting painted by my bili, telling the stories behind the color to the audience.”

Extemporaneous

The Extemporaneous Music and Arts Society collective was founded just a few years ago, dedicated to “improvised and experimental work in Kansas City.” Seth Andrew Davis and Evan Verploegh are the instigators, joined by a growing group of collaborators from all facets of art-making.

“I’ve always been drawn to music that felt very personal, very raw,” says Verploegh. “The best free jazz, free improvisation, experimental music, whatever you want to call it, has always simultaneously provided me with an intense feeling of physicality and forward motion, while also a deep intellectual stimulation — music equal parts for the mind and the body.”

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Hope-Lian Vinson
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Members of the Extemporaneous Music and Arts Society perform the premiere of Seth Andrew Davis' 'Cybersyn.'

The Society performs this fall at the Charlotte Street Foundation with the series EMAS Presents. On Sept. 26, they collaborate with poet Iris Appelquist and dancer Nora Burkitt. (Classical KC’s Brooke Knoll performs with the collective on harp on occasion.) The series continues Nov. 16 and Dec. 21.

Verploegh says they founded the group because “we had a shared view that this music is more powerful when presented as a collective. Ultimately, we want to help build Kansas City as a hub for creative improvised and experimental music and art.”

Charlotte Street Foundation serves as a launchpad for other experimental endeavors, including a concert of new work hosted by Ensemble Mother Russia Industries in 2021. Classical KC chatted with organizer Tim Harte in January 2022 about making space for experimental music.

No matter the genre, improvisation can be approached with an entry point of open curiosity and a willingness to embrace spontaneity, for performers and listeners alike.

“Leaving yourself vulnerable is when the best art is made,” says Verploegh. “The musicians, the audience, we’re all in this together. Life is improvisation.”

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She's written for KCUR, KC Studio, The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, and KCMetropolis. Libby maintains the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich and writes poetry and children's books. Along with degrees in trombone performance, she was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University.
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