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Innovative saxophone quartet will help lead a conference on improvisation and the arts

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa mini-conference on the interaction of music with other arts will culminate with a free concert by the Rova Saxophone Quartet, an innovative group that the New York Times considers the equivalent of Kronos and that Downbeat magazine called "tirelessly imaginative," at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16 in Clapp Recital Hall on the UI campus.

The mini-conference, "Stop! What's that Sound?" will extend from Thursday, Oct. 15 through Saturday morning, Oct. 17. In addition to the concert and a workshop by Rova, it will include discussions of interrelationships among music, poetry and painting, panel discussions on the role of improvisation and the use of crossdisciplinary approaches to creation, a poetry reading and an open multi-arts improvisation session.

Daytime events will be in the Opera Rehearsal Room of the Voxman Music Building, starting at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Evening events will be a reading by Lyn Hejinian, poet-in-residence at the UI Writers' Workshop, and California poet Clark Coolidge, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Clapp Recital Hall; an open improvisation session with the Oddbar Trio Plus Trombone, Rova and other conference participants at 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Sanctuary in Iowa City; and the Friday concert by Rova.

Participants in the conference will include John Rapson, director of jazz studies at the UI School of Music; Adelaide Morris, chair of the UI English department; painter Tom Soule from Portland, Ore.; and composer/clarinetist Robert Paredes of Iowa City. Members of Rova are Bruce Ackley, soprano saxophone; Steve Adams, alto saxophone; Larry Ochs, tenor saxophone; and John Raskin, baritone saxophone.

All events in the conference will be free and open to the public.

For the Oct. 16 concert, Rova will play a combination of original works by members of the quartet and works commissioned by Rova with funds from Meet the Composer USA Commissioning Fund. The program will include pieces from "Freedom in Fragments," a long suite written for Rova by Fred Frith, which the quartet will record in 1999.

Founded in the late 1970s, the Rova Saxophone Quartet has spent nearly 20 years carving out a unique niche for itself combining contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz styles. They acknowledge influences on the classical side that range from the iconoclastic American Charles Ives to the religious mystic Olivier Messiaen, and from the mathematically precise Ianis Xenakis to the composer/philosopher of chance music, John Cage. Diverse jazz influences include Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk and Anthony Braxton.

Starting from a position on the margin of avant-garde jazz, Rova has developed into leaders of what is loosely called "collective improvisation." In this approach, the apparently conflicting demands of composed music and improvisation are reconciled in a music of original harmony. Rova has established the validity of an entire performance technique, in the process earning public and critical acclaim, a high reputation and a loyal following.

The critic of the Village Voice described Rova's leadership in this challenging musical style: "I'd think collective improvisation was a lost cause if it weren't for this quartet. Their tightly structured improvs do to jazz what Ives did to hymn tunes -- it's like Thelonious Monk crossed with Bartok."

Other critics have stressed the unusual combination of adventurousness and public acceptance that Rova has achieved. For example, their hometown San Francisco Chronicle noted that the group has "delighted audiences throughout the world with a sophisticated and highly virtuosic -- but remarkably accessible -- blend of jazz, contemporary avant-garde composition and free-form improvisation."

The influential jazz magazine Downbeat has written several times about Rova, most memorably in 1991 when they commented, "The Rova Saxophone Quartet spun intricate, wildly precise and devoutly expressionistic spiderwebs of sound, with contrapuntal lines crisscrossed for structural strength and sheer beauty. . Rova is not only the hardest-working saxophone quartet in blow-business, they are also the finest."

Lyn Hejinian began publishing her poems in magazines in 1963 and 1964. By the mid-1970s, she had begun editing the Tuumba Press series, which included a wide range of contemporary writing by poets and critics who were to join forces in the social, political, and aesthetic grouping of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in the San Francisco Bay area. Among her major publications are "Gesualdo," "Writing Is an Aid to Memory," "My Life," "Oxota: A Short Russian Novel," "The Cell," and "The Cold of Poetry." She is co-editor of the Poetics Journal. Her critical essays are forthcoming from the University of California, Berkeley.

Clark Coolidge's poetic career spans 33 years and an almost equal number of books. The son of a professor of music at Brown University, Coolidge is an accomplished jazz drummer. His numerous collections of poetry include "Solution Passage: Poems 1978-1981," "Sound as Thought: Poems 1982-1984," "Own Face," and "The ROVA Improvisations," which began as preparations to compose liner notes for Rova's album "The Crowd." David Antin has called his improvisatory constructions "the work of an experimental master doing a set of brilliant takes on the convention."

The mini-conference "Stop! What's that Sound?" was put together by UI graduate students Richard Quinn and Eric Neel, together with Rapson and Morris at the UI and in coordination with Hejinian, Coolidge, Soule and members of Rova.

The visit to the UI campus by the Rova Saxophone Quartet is supported by a fund established by the late Ida Cornelia Beam of Vinton, Iowa. Other support for "Stop! What's that Sound" has been provided by the following units of the UI: the College of Liberal Arts, the Office of the Vice-President for Research, the English Department, the Writers' Workshop and the School of Music.

Beam, whose only prior UI connection was a relative who graduated from the College of Medicine, willed her farm to the UI in 1977. With the proceeds from the sale of the farm, the UI established a fund to bring top scholars in a variety of disciplines to the university for lectures and discussions.

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"Stop! What's that Sound?"
Conference Schedule and Description


 10:30 a.m. Opera Rehearsal Room, Voxman Music Building
  "Sound as Thought as Poem": Poets Lyn Hejinian and Clark Coolidge will read poems and ask questions of each other.
 1:30 p.m. Opera Rehearsal Room, Voxman Music Building
  "The Interaction of Improvisation with Composition": Panelists Lyn Hejinian, Clark Coolidge, Tom Soule, John Rapson and members of Rova will discuss the ways they blend improvisation with composition in the realization of their works, with examples from each artist.
 7:30 p.m. Clapp Recital Hall
  Poetry reading by Lyn Hejinian and Clark Coolidge
 9:30 p.m. The Sanctuary, 405 S. Gilbert, Iowa City
  Club Session, open improvisation with the jazz combo Oddbar Trio Plus Trombone, as well as Rova and other guests from the conference


 10:30 a.m. Opera Rehearsal Room, Voxman Music Building
  "Sound as Thought as Music: Extended Techniques for Saxophone": lecture/demonstration by the Rova Saxophone Quartet
 1:30 p.m. Opera Rehearsal Room, Voxman Music Building
  "New Sources for the Artistic Process": Panelists Lyn Hejinian, Clark Coolidge, Tom Soule John Rapson and members of Rova, with moderator Adelaide Morris, will discuss the inter-disciplinary approaches the guest artists are using, with particular emphasis on ideas that originate in other artistic genres and that blend diverse styles within a single work. Included will be a collaborative work by clarinetist Robert Paredes and poet Clark Coolidge.
  8 p.m.  Clapp Recital Hall
  Concert by Rova Saxophone Quartet

 10 a.m. Opera Rehearsal Room, Voxman Music Building
  "Sound as Thought as Painting": painter Tom Soule will discuss "the lure of, the desire for, the agony about, varied approaches to, and ultimately the inapproachability of the state of music among Western visual artists in the 20th century."
All events are free and open to the public.