Not many musical directors would confess, with an impish grin, that their performances are just as likely to “crash and burn” as they are to be “completely thrilling and awe-inspiring.” Meet University lecturer Mark Kirschenmann: jazz trumpeter, solo electronic musician and director of the Creative Arts Orchestra, the University’s fully improvisational, genre-shredding music ensemble.

Creative Arts Orchestra

Thursday at 8 p.m.
Rackham Auditorium
Free

“There’s kind of a stigma sometimes that the composer hands down this tablet that’s etched, and here it is,” Kirschenmann said. “And you are the player, therefore you will play it exactly the way I’ve written it for you. So you are, therefore, then the re-creator.”

One of CAO’s missions is to shatter this stereotype of musical composition — especially in the realm of classical music — as a fixed, airtight entity. In fact, CAO scarcely even looks at musical notation at all.

“For the most part, we just set up and play. We’ll just set up in a circle, all 15 of us, and we’ll just start from nothing,” Kirschenmann said. “We won’t be reading any music, we won’t be taking any cues. I’m not going to be up there conducting. I’ll be sitting, playing in the ensemble. And it will just be continuously unfolding.”

Given CAO’s unadulteratedly off-the-cuff nature, it makes sense that its free-the-music agenda is just as much a recipe for disaster as it is for experimental genius. But this is precisely what makes CAO so precious.

The concept of a fully improvisational orchestra comes packaged with such a hefty risk quotient that, according to Kirschenmann, “There are almost — in the university system of the world — no ensembles like this.”

When ‘U’ professor and accomplished jazz musician Edward Sarath founded CAO 20 years ago, the vast majority of those in the School of Music — students and professors alike — thought that the idea was, quite simply, a bit bananas.

According to Kirschenmann, who jumped on board CAO in 2002, the fledgling ensemble was met with “real skepticism and, in fact, opposition.” Even jazz musicians, the quintessential proprietors of the improvisation game, found the whole escapade to be a tad batty.

But, thankfully, CAO has weathered the storm of practicality and will be unleashing its renegade brand of music-making at Rackham Auditorium tonight at 8 p.m. This brings up a question: Exactly what should one be expecting from this show?

Will Marriott, a tenor saxophonist in CAO and sophomore in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, put it bluntly: “Don’t expect anything. Nothing can be expected. Just go (to the show) with an open mind and open ears and experience music.”

And, as frustratingly abstract as his disclaimer is, Marriott is right on the money. More than anything else, CAO is out to shatter boundaries and confound expectations. As far as any sort of setlist, Kirschenmann asserted: “We won’t decide, probably, until two minutes before we walk out.”

An integral part of this anything-goes mentality is CAO’s insistence on uniting musicians with incredibly diverse backgrounds and tastes — the ensemble isn’t even restricted to students in the School of Music.

“Students tend to get categorized and stratified by their majors. We want to dissolve all that,” Kirschenmann said. “Why can’t classical players, jazz players, composers (and) music tech people all get together and make music? And improvise. And share their common experiences, put them all into this big pool and let it brew and simmer.”

If anything can be expected, it’s a lack of stuffiness. CAO’s performances are a far cry from any sort of classical jazz standard. The ensemble often incorporates electronic elements, unafraid to warp traditional tones with laptops and effects pedals.

And Gabriel Saltman, a baritone saxophonist in CAO and sophomore in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, commented that the jamboree isn’t even limited to musical instruments, stating that it’s fair game “to yell, or speak words.”

Saltman actually composed a piece for CAO, titled “Faces,” which will likely debut tonight, despite the ensemble’s aversion to written music. The catch? The piece contains absolutely zero standard musical notation.

On paper, “Faces” is an expressionistic accumulation of various shapes and colors, from which musicians are expected to extract emotion from and, in turn, convert into sound. Thus, while the piece is indeed written, its abstract nature guarantees that it sounds drastically different each time it’s played — an aspect accentuated by the fact that Saltman will be conducting the piece in real time, mixing and matching sets of musicians on the spot.

Marriott also composed an unorthodox piece likely to debut tonight, a kind of musical equivalent to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. The piece consists of divergent pathways gradually layering on top of each other as the musicians spontaneously riff on the central melody and choose from a variety of open-ended “routes.”

Clearly, tonight’s performance is going to be an unpredictable one. And whether it’s a triumph or a “crash-and-burn,” it certainly won’t be bland. So leave your expectations at the door and brace yourself for something truly unclassifiable.

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