This past Thursday evening, Hankinson Rehearsal Hall hosted an improvisational performance from the Creative Arts Orchestra. The orchestra consisted of SMTD students with a combination of violin, viola, trumpet, piano, melodica, voice and various percussion instruments.

The element of improvisation is what sets the Creative Arts Orchestra apart from other musical groups at SMTD. Improvisation involves a lack of musical guidance — no conductors, sheet music or organized practicing — in addition to the creative use of instruments, such as banging on stringed instruments or applying paper to piano strings for a crunch-like sound.

Each of the six musicians were free to play whatever they pleased, with no prior restrictions on what to play. That said, for some pieces there were certain “filters,” as SMTD professor Mark Kirschenmann called them, in place for the orchestra to fall in line with.

For one set, Kirschenmann informed the audience, “We will all play keyboard instruments, and we are all going to sing, other than that I have no idea what is going to happen.”

For another set, Weston Gilbert, the orchestra’s violinist, presented the orchestra with a brief sheet of music with certain chords and soloing sections for the individual musicians to follow. Outside of the framework of pitches for each musician to choose from, the rest of the set was all improvisational. In fact, I had a chance to take a look at the sheet of musical frameworks written by Gilbert. It was a sparse piece of music with only a few complex chords progressions. The final measure featured a single note for each musician to aim for as an end goal.

Outside of the musical framework, I was curious as to how each musician decided what to play and what noises to make. After the show, I spoke with Maya Johnson, an SMTD composition Master’s student, who was on the viola for the group.

“I pay attention to what is or is not being done,” Johnson said when asked how she decided what to play. “If everyone is playing long notes, I tend to do the opposite.” It is this sense of opposites attracting that I believe made the show so interesting. “I also have my bag of tricks … I’m the only viola, so a low C is never a bad move.” Johnson took into account the unique properties of her own instrument and used these properties to add a new dimension to the improvisational work.

The improvisation involved little harmonization and few instances of synchronized sound. However, the few moments of resolve were welcomed, like an oasis in a sea of musical confusion. I found that I wanted to keep listening in hopes of hearing such a satisfying resolve or a discernable melody.

In terms of the sounds themselves, much of the improvisation actually had repeating tropes. Much of the concert sounded very “L.A. Noire” or like “The Twilight Zone,” an eerie and unsettling soundtrack for a winter night. With a muted trumpet and a ringing vibraphone, I felt as though I was supposed to be solving a mystery.

I felt unsettled, discontented with the music being played and what I was hearing, which is perhaps the purpose behind this improvisational method. The dissonance and discomfort builds to a point of relief, when the sounds finally assemble and come to a close.

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