Interdisciplinary University Group Explores Nature Using Improvisation

Improvising Ecosystems group to perform installation about water

Improvising Ecosystems is an innovative group on campus that combines different disciplines through the study of musical, artistic, and dance improvisation with a special focus on nature. The group was founded by guitar professor Maja Radovanlija with fellow School of Music faculty member Scott Currie, a saxophone professor. The pair went to Iceland together for a program that focused on improvising. “We got to improvise and interact with our environment. I decided that we needed something like this at our university,” said Radovanlija.

Photographer: Mariah Crabb

Photographer: Mariah Crabb

Every semester, the group focuses on a topic relating to the environment. In years past they have focused on the forest, for example. “For our installation about the forest we had basically a covering on the floor that was a big metal floor with a contact mic under it with pine needles that were activated as people walked upon it. This became a compositional space as pine needles were gathered, swished, and dropped at varying rates to create improvised sonic atmospheres,” said Willow. There were other components to the performance as well, including the sounds of instruments specifically crafted to make creaking noises and an interactive video microscope that people used to create projections of their movements.

“We did this one thing called sound meditating. We imagined a water sound and then tried to create the sound ourselves.”

The focus for this semester’s installation is water. For inspiration, the group received funding to take the faculty and students on a trip to Duluth to visit Lake Superior. The trip inspired many of the students, and one in particular, Mitty Sheen, who spoke in wonder of her experience. “We did this one thing called sound meditating. We imagined a water sound and then tried to create the sound ourselves,” said Sheen, a senior piano and composing student.

Music professor Radovanlija argues Improvising Ecosystems offers educationally unique and valuable experiences. “Especially for music students, it is really important for them to get out of the practice room and to collaborate with other students from different areas. I know that when I was a student, I just spent my time in the practice rooms and went to my classes. I wish I had had something like this back then!” said Radovanlija.

Since the group was formed four years ago, faculty from other disciplines have become involved. Diane Willow, an art faculty member, has a background in art and technology and oversees the artistic part of the collaboration. Mike Duffy, another advisor to the project, manages technology in the School of Music as well as composing. The four faculty members–Radovanlija, Currie, Willow and Duffy–agree that this project is not about them. “Students definitely bring as much to the project as the faculty,” said Willow.

There are art students working on pieces that express the fluidity of water through painting, video and sound engineering.

This year, the group is made up of about 20 students from all around the university. There are art students working on pieces that express the fluidity of water through painting, video and sound engineering. Musicians are working on themes for an improvisational piece that Radovanlija, who is overseeing their work, has christened “Breathing Lake.” Dance students are busy creating movements that mimic water.

In past years, the group has been able to travel to a variety of different locations including Cedar Creek, a famous conservation area. For the forest-themed installation, they traveled to Cloquet Forestry Center, where they gathered inspiration from the sounds and sights of the Cloquet Forest.

Improvisation has always been at the core of the group’s exploits. “Our work centers on the role of improvisation in creative work and our varying approaches to improvisation as explored in the medium of each collaborator,” said Willow. For students, this seems to be a really important part of their experience with the group. “I like that we use our instruments in unconventional ways,” said Tess Hu, a sophomore and music student specializing in guitar and traditional Chinese instruments.

“Our work centers on the role of improvisation in creative work and our varying approaches to improvisation as explored in the medium of each collaborator.”

Another facet of the project is exploring ecological research sites. During their ventures outside of the university, they often go to ecological research sites and meet with scientists. The scientists walk them through their research, educating the students about the environmental aspects of the project.

The project has been made possible by both the Institute on the Environment and the Institute for Advanced Study at the U. Though, it is the creative minds and different perspectives that allow each semester’s installation to take on life. Willow calls the installation an experience that is “completely interactive and participatory.” On November 17, they will perform their installation of this semester’s project on water in the Beacon Room at the University Rec and Wellness Center.