Oberlin Improv Fest 2023 Celebrates Range of Creative Practices

The three-day festival, running March 2-4, presents 13 events; brings guest artists to campus to teach and perform

March 2, 2023

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

Four guest artists of the Oberlin Improv Festival
From top, L-R: Luis Perdomo, Kojiro Umezaki, Aurora Nealand '01, Nicole Mitchell
Photo credit: Courtesy of the artists

This year Oberlin students have had the opportunity for the first time to declare a minor in a new formalized course of study in improvisation. And from Thursday, March 2 through Saturday, March 4, they will have an immersive experience in the Oberlin Improv Fest 2023. All events of the festival are also open to audiences and are free.

The festival kicks off on Thursday at noon in the Birenbaum with a panel discussion with faculty and guest artists. La Tanya Hall, associate professor of jazz voice, will moderate a discussion about improvised music and improvisation in the creative process with the four guest artists of the festival—flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell; shakuhachi player and composer Kojiro Umezaki; multi-instrumentalist, singer, and composer Aurora Nealand ’01; and jazz pianist and composer Luis Perdomo—and Oberlin’s Visiting Assistant Professor of Baroque Violin Edwin Huizinga '06.

The events that follow over the three days encompass workshops, presentations, and performances that showcase exciting performances with AI-based interactive and immersive sound, group improvisation, jazz, and students in Oberlin's Performance and Improvisation program. 

Dana Jessen, Oberlin’s associate professor of contemporary music and improvisation and a key organizer of Improv Fest, shares that the inspiration for the festival “came about as a means to celebrate the many outlets for improvisation on campus, and at the same time, bring together world-renowned artists to interact with our students and community.” Festival co-organizer is Aurie Hsu '96, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor in TIMARA.

Jessen continues, “Improvisation is deeply rooted within Oberlin's campus, from official ensembles and courses, to student-led groups and initiatives.”

In fact, improvisation has been emphasized at Oberlin Conservatory for generations—from early practices in organ, to historical performance, as well as free jazz, fusion, electronic music, and more recently in non-Western idioms explored in Oberlin’s Performance and Improvisation (PI) Program. Courses and ensembles in PI provide students with the opportunity to enrich their existing musical vocabularies and skills through practical exploration of many different world musics and improvisation across a range of genres and styles. This study is fundamental to Oberlin’s directive to optimally prepare musicians for any number of potential 21st-century career paths.

“The festival aligns with Oberlin's new improvisation minor in that it seeks to convey how improvisation can be a thread that connects different areas of music-making,” says Jessen. “The scope of the festival itself in many ways mirrors the many pathways that students could pursue in the minor.”

In choosing the guest artists for the festival, Jessen describes, “Improvisation takes many forms and the festival artists represent a range of practices, styles, and traditions. Our events throughout the festival highlight the breadth of their work, as well as the range of offerings on campus. These include Afrofuturism, interactive electronic improvisation, non-western idioms, jazz, historical performance, conducted improvisation, free music, and songwriting.”

Each of the four guests will appear in concert during the festival, highlighting an experience for listening audiences.

Nealand and Umezaki will collaborate on Thursday, March 2 at 8:30 p.m. in the Birenbaum. Mitchell’s concert on Friday, March 3 at 8:00 p.m., also in the Birenbaum, will involve jazz studies students and faculty performers in performances of her works. Students in Oberlin’s PI Program will collaborate with jazz pianist Perdomo on his festival closing concert on Saturday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse.

“These performances will highlight the high level of musicianship connected to these practices,” emphasizes Jessen.

Additional concerts feature Oberlin’s student small jazz ensembles at the weekly Jazz Forum held at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse on Friday, March 3 at noon. A Student Showcase performance with OCTaiko, the Silent Film Ensemble, Oberlin Creative Music Lab, and Oberlin Percussion Group takes place on Saturday, March 4 at Wilder Hall’s Main Theater.

Jessen expresses “hope is that the festival will bring our community together and offer inspiration for students to explore the many pathways to improvisation, while the workshops and presentations will offer an entryway for newcomers.”

Oberlin Improv Fest 2023 Event Schedule

PANEL DISCUSSION: GUEST ARTISTS AND FACULTY
Thursday, March 2, 12:00-1:30 PM
Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space, Hotel at Oberlin

GUEST MASTER CLASS: JAZZ PIANIST LUIS PERDOMO
Thursday, March 2, 4:00-5:00 PM
Clonick Hall

PRESENTATION: KOJIRO UMEZAKI
Thursday, March 2, 4:30-6:00 PM
Birenbaum
Umezaki presents his work featuring global and hybrid practices in acoustic and electronic music.

PRESENTATION: NICOLE MITCHELL
Thursday, March 2, 7:00-8:15 PM
Stull Recital Hall
The music that flutist, composer, bandleader, and educator Nicole Mitchell creates celebrates contemporary African American culture and explores intercultural collaborations. In her presentation, she will discuss Afrofuturism.

CONCERT: AURORA NEALAND AND KOJIRO UMEZAKI
Thursday, March 2, 8:30 PM
Birenbaum  

PERFORMANCE: JAZZ FORUM
Friday, March 3, 12:00 PM
Cat and the Cream Coffee House
Oberlin student jazz ensembles perform.

SONGWRITING WORKSHOP: AURORA NEALAND '01
Friday, March 3, 3:30-5:30 PM
Stull Recital Hall

CONCERT: NICOLE MITCHELL
Friday, March 3, 8:00 PM
Birenbaum

ORGAN WORKSHOP: CHRISTA RAKICH ’75
Saturday, March 4, 10:30 AM-12:30 PM
Finney Chapel
“How To Sound Like Messiaen”

INFO SESSION: IMPROVISATION MINOR WITH DANA JESSEN
Friday, March 4, 12:00-1:00 PM
Birenbaum
The Improvisation Minor draws upon several departments across the conservatory and college, enabling students to create a pathway that suits their artistic interests.

SOUNDPAINTING WORKSHOP: DREW PATTISON ’10
Saturday, March 4, 1:30-3:00 PM
Central 25
Soundpainting is the universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual artists, developed by Walter Thompson. Drew Pattison '10, assistant professor of bassoon, will engage workshop participants in improvisation and group interaction through the conducted Soundpainting language.

CONCERT: STUDENT SHOWCASE
Saturday, March 4, 4:30-6:30 PM
Wilder Hall - Wilder Main Theater

CONCERT: PIANIST LUIS PERDOMO WITH OBERLIN PI ENSEMBLE
Saturday, March 4, 7:30 PM
Cat and the Cream Coffee House


Oberlin Improv Fest 2023 is organized with support from TIMARA, Conservatory Deans Office, Conservatory Professional Development, and the Alumni in Service to Oberlin College (ASOC) Fund.

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