This is a guest post by Ali Pappa, composer, percussionist, and co-organizer of Space Whales chamber improv (we'll explain what that is more in a future post)
I am humbled by the vastness of this Earth and of all the humans that contribute to our existence. In navigating these early years of my adulthood, I've had an incredible amount of serendipity shape my journey, more than I can sometimes fathom a single person experiencing.
My future is a giant jigsaw puzzle. The more I grow, the more puzzle pieces appear for me to arrange and shape. I don't know what the completed picture depicts, I can only glean new information with every piece I unfold. As I continue to learn and meet new people while pursuing my passions as a composer, percussionist, and more recently improviser, more and more falls into place.
I caught the first glimpse of my newest puzzle piece In December of last year, during my first semester at UT. I had tagged along with a few friends from percussion studio to see the incredibly talented contemporary classical duo RighteousGIRLS, presented by TETRACTYS, an Austin-based New Music concert series. The studio was small, there were only about 20 folding chairs against two walls facing the stage where pianist Erika Dohi and flautist Gina Izzo presented a striking improvised set centered on re-imagining composer Andy Akiho's 21. I’d only ever perceived free improv as a concept in jazz music. Hearing it in a classical context for the first time made me realize how limiting this misconception was.
After the post-show intermingling, the duo invited us onlookers to drinks and food at the restaurant next door. My friends and I crowded into this large booth with the performers, the venue owner, producer, and a few strangers from the audience. Most of my attention was on the performers. If you had told me in that moment that in six months’ time I would be collaborative partners with one of those strangers, I wouldn’t have believed you...
Two months later, I found myself at Big Medium to see then-stranger, Kenzie, lead a Conduction show. Although I knew it would be a new experience to see this kind of performance, I found I was wholly unprepared for the level of innovation and pure spontaneity that took place. Seeing such a diverse group of musicians—each with a unique background and musical style—collectively improvise so boldly and without restraint, left me in awe, inspired, and completely enraptured. My conception of what improv is or could be was ultimately shaken in the best way possible.
I then heard that Kenzie led monthly Conduction jams with a group of musicians, where they got to explore and learn about these incredible concepts surrounding group improvisation. I was invited to jam, but I had a slew of reservations. Would I completely embarrass myself? I’ve never improvised before.. What if I say or do the wrong thing? I don’t know any of these people...
Ultimately my curiosity and sense of wonder overtook my fears. Before I could change my mind, I packed up a box full of flower pots and wood blocks, got in the car, and hit the road. I’m so glad I went. Kenzie was extremely welcoming, and despite my nerves, I ended up finding my place within a group of 18 strangers faster than I ever expected would be possible. I remember becoming overwhelmed with emotions through a particularly breathtaking moment of creation. I'd found a community of like-minded musicians, where we could explore creativity in a way I never thought I was capable of! I don't think I'd ever felt so connected inside of a musical group before.
The ending was bittersweet; Kenzie was officially moving to L.A. by the end of the week. I had this feeling I wouldn’t get to jam with her and my new friends for quite some time.
Then COVID19 hit the U.S. We all felt the dramatic change in our lives. Of all the things that could possibly continue during such an uncertain time, I never imagined the jams would be one of them.
But I quickly learned something: Kenzie has a way of making the seemingly impossible a reality. By the end of April, she had already explored virtual jam sessions with several people and had completed a few successful runs.
Upon learning this, I had so many questions, primarily “how?”. When so many musicians are struggling to do virtual live rehearsing together due to latency issues, what did Kenzie figure out that others haven’t? Kenzie’s answer to this was absolutely mind-blowing:
Instead of treating [latency] as a problem, let’s embrace the out-of-sync manner in which we perceive each other as a feature of the music—and not an obstacle to its creation.
(Of course, with Conduction, our collaborations were never truly restricted to absolute tempo in the way that many other musical groups are, but treating the latency between players with kindness and integrating it into our practice has made virtual jams incredibly rewarding.)
As Kenzie and I got to know each other more, I became more involved, working with her outside of jams. It started off in late May as just a conversation—just me picking Kenzie’s brain about the jams and improv. She had so many incredible ideas she wanted to actualize, and I found myself wanting to help her make it all possible. We decided to form a partnership based on community and improvisation.
8 virtual jams and one month of planning and organizing later, Space Whales Chamber Improv is beginning to come together. We're using Conduction and improv theater concepts to develop more ideas for virtual jams, and we have classes and shows coming up in July! We've also got grander plans to build community that we hope to share with you soon.
Even though this is just the beginning, with each day we continue our work, I feel this puzzle piece become more and more detailed in my mind. What was once so new and still fuzzy now appears sharper, the curves and edges already lining up with other pieces of my life. I have a feeling it isn't a corner or edge piece, but one that belongs somewhere in the center of this picture. Where exactly it goes or what that means remains to be seen! But I find myself looking to the future with a greater sense of purpose than ever before.
To learn more about what we're currently up to, check out the chamber improv page.