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University of Iowa News Release

Nov. 25, 2003

Audience Members Can Contribute To Improvised Concerts Dec. 8-9

Members of an unusual class at the University of Iowa School of Music will present two concerts that are completely and spontaneously improvised, from beginning to end, at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 8 and 9, in Harper Hall of the UI Voxman Music Building.

The performance by students in the course "Introduction to Improvisation" will be free and open to the public. Audience members will have the opportunity to contribute to the performance by providing potential makeshift percussion instruments brought from home, and by suggesting ideas to help shape the spontaneously created pieces.

The class is taught by Jeffrey Agrell, who also teaches French horn in the School of Music, and Evan Mazunik, a graduate student in the jazz performance area. A composer as well as a performer, Agrell is known for incorporating improvisation into both his compositions and his performances. Since coming to the UI School of Music three years ago, he has given a series of partially improvised performances with Mazunik.

The class of 20 students will be divided into two groups of 10, one for each concert. Performers include pianists, percussionists, oboists, horn players and singers, among others, so that a variety of groups will be possible on each concert.

"Members of the 'Introduction to Improvisation' class are doing something unique and new: they are giving a concert at the School of Music without preparing a single written piece," Agrell explained recently.

"The audience will be an essential part of the performances, and for its part will be asked to bring from home kitchen and toolbox utensils or other miscellaneous household items that could be used as makeshift percussion instruments, as well as any kind of graphic art to be used as non-traditional scores. Before the concert begins, the audience will also be asked to contribute various suggestions that will shape some of the pieces, such as adjectives and nouns, evocative titles, names of animals, familiar tunes, musical styles, keys and more."

Unlike traditional end-of-semester concerts, there are no pieces to practice for the improvised concerts. But that doesn't mean there's not lots of preparation involved, Agrell said. "A concert of completely improvised music requires a good bit of preparation, but it is unlike that of either classical training or jazz.

"The students -- all of whom were new to improvisation three months ago -- have learned to put all mental, emotional, technical and musical resources to very immediate use and to construct music on the spot, alone or in ensembles, with whatever limitations they are given. For these concerts, groups of players will be announced just before each piece. They will be given certain limitations that they will use to create a coherent and interesting piece on the spot -- no rehearsals, live in front of the audience

"This is risky, scary work, but ultimately extremely rewarding and exhilarating for both the musicians and the audience."

Agrell added that each concert will begin with all of the players performing together using "Soundpainting," a gestural language where the conductor composes a piece using gestures that indicate the type of improvisation desired. Mazunik, who has studied Soundpainting with its creator, Walter Thompson, will lead these performances.

Soundpainting developed as a method of communicating with the musicians during a performance without having to shout above the music. It has now evolved into a system with which an entire concert, dance or theatre work or film score can be realized spontaneously.

Agrell joined the UI School of Music faculty in 2000 after a 25-year career as a symphony musician. At the UI he teaches horn, directs the Horn Choir, teaches introduction to improvisation and performs with the Iowa Brass Quintet. Before coming to Iowa, he associate principal horn with the Lucerne (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra 1975-2000, playing symphonic music, opera, operetta, ballet, musicals, choral music and chamber music.

Agrell began composing and arranging during his college years and played jazz guitar and electronic music in the 1980s. For the past decade he has had a steady stream of commissions from professional chamber music ensembles. His works have appeared on CD and have been broadcast on radio and television nationally and internationally. Several of his compositions have won awards.

Mazunik's broad experience as a pianist, composer and improviser includes work with distinguished musicians including Carla Bley, Bob Mintzer, Bobby Shew and Steve Swallow. He is currently the pianist for Johnson County Landmark, the UI's top jazz big band, and keyboardist for the Steve Grismore/Paul Scea Ensemble. He recently received a UI Student Art Grant to record Gamut's debut album, "Countermeasures."

Mazunik has been a member of the New York City-based Walter Thompson Orchestra since 2002. In 2001, he founded Gamut, Iowa City's first ensemble based on Soundpainting, and he continues to serve as the group's artistic director and conductor.

The School of Music is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

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