Oberlin’s premiere free-improvisation band, Information Night, held its final school-year concert on Saturday May 22. In many ways, the night’s event encapsulated the climate of this time—the intimacy and relief of the post-exam period, the emerging questions of life paths and old/new relationships faced by graduating seniors, and the even more profound question of what music means in the nerve and heart of our lives.
Huddled cozily on the Warner concert hall stage only feet from the five-member band, the audience was rapt in attention. Unfurling musical landscapes that ranged from the broad to the banal, the music shifted from Sam Kulik’s whale tones to Raga-inspired arabesques on Amie Wiess’ electric violin. The only raggedness occurred at the outer limits of each piece—at one point, John Leland’s accidental percussion tap transformed the silence into a fumbled team-tag of knocks. Perhaps this awkwardness reflects our own difficulties with endings and beginnings—the very name “Commencement” suggests the ambiguity of the two.
The birth of Information Night harkens to September of last year. Along with Kulik on trombone, Weiss on violin and Leland playing percussion, the band features Clara Latham on guitar and vocals and Michael Gallope on piano. Leland, the only member who is not a graduating senior this year, also offered the group’s name, merging connotations of the technical, intellectual with the unfathomable and overwhelming. Begun head-on with no pretensions as to structuring their improvisations, the group’s process has gradually shifted, as Kulik confesses, towards mapping out the sonic glades in each piece.
“The challenge,” the jazz trombonist states, “is making something necessary” as an emerging musical element. A pastiche of influences—ranging from Cindy Lauper, Elvis, contemporary classical music, Bob Dylan and Euro free jazz—only enriches this synthesis and reflects the multiplicity of the Oberlin itself. With a spring break Philadelphia concert, and intensive time together over winter term, the five have only grown more comfortable together, both in being themselves and relating onstage in ever-subtler ways. Often, a 90-minute rehearsal might signify only 15 minutes of playing, interspersed with talk, laughs and perhaps a trip to Gibson’s for sandwiches.
With this final show in Oberlin past, the group looks forward to a September reassembling in the tougher NY city scene. The night reflected this two-faced nostalgia—at one point, Gallope dissolved the texture into a four-voice Bach chorale, blossoming into stratocumulus wisps and punctuated jabs. The sense of improvisational liberation that Information Night offers is just this “freedom for each member to do and be exactly as she wants,” as Kulik states. As a reminder of intimacy on the cusp of partings and beginnings, in the midst of the uncertainties and pomp of commencement week, this may be the single most cogent blessing given by the free-improvisation band.