In a small classroom tucked along a rambling hallway circling the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, two student duets offer very different solutions to a musical problem.
A pair on violin and drums play a challenging improvisation based on an exploration of textures, from mallets rubbed across the skin of a snare to tightly coiled string outbursts. Just before, a cello/clarinet duo began with a series of call-and-response phrases flowing into an almost lush essay laced with ringing melodic lines.
Both pieces were responses to instructor Anthony Coleman’s assignment to create an improvisation loosely informed by the blues.
“It’s all about looking at improvisation from as many angles as we possibly can,” explained Coleman earlier. “It’s kind of crazy, the dizzying kinds of backgrounds of just the ten people in this class. I don't know if there’s another department in the world like this.”
He means NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation (or CI) department, a forward-looking cabal within this classical conservatory that has grown from a period of perceived irrelevance to a thriving hub of musical exploration. It’s celebrating its 40th birthday with a series of concerts, including an alumni showcase Friday that will range from Brazilian jazz to Appalachian fiddle tunes.
Unconcerned with imposing allegiance to established musical forms, CI is unusual for its emphasis, in a conservatory environment, on helping musicians become original improvisers by consuming a heavy diet of styles. Hands-on playing is favored over chin-stroking studies.
It was launched by then-NEC president Gunther Schuller as the Third Stream department, borrowing the name he coined in 1957 to describe the emerging intersection between jazz and classical music. He tapped young pianist Ran Blake as the founding department chair, and Blake put his strong emphasis on ear training at the heart of things.
The idea is to toss aside the technical exercises and hours of score studying one might expect at a conservatory, and emphasize broad and intensive listening habits. Students learn to play a variety of genres by ear, developing a personal approach through immersion in the unfamiliar.
“It is a distinctly different thing to go in and really develop a personal style from a series of inspirations,” says fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger, who plays in tonight’s alumni concert, “and to learn and to study those inspirations so methodically and so carefully that they really do become a part of you and a part of your musicality. That’s drastically different from memorizing a lot of exercises and scales and arpeggios.”
Its namesake department at NEC possessed an experimental edge, but Third Stream itself was viewed by many, by the 1980s, as an ossified genre long since displaced by later trends. Yet there was always an expansive view here, one that reinterpreted Third Stream as a wide-open commingling of styles. When Schuller hired Peter Row to teach a course on Indian music in 1974, the move was so out of step with the conservatory world that Schuller had to quietly purchase five sitars for the class from his own pocket.
Row became a long-serving dean and provost at NEC, and in the face of declining enrollment in the department he commissioned research on the attitude toward so-called Third Stream.
“What we got back was this huge question mark. The term Third Stream was completely passé. Kids coming out of high school had not a clue what it was,” Row recalls.
Though its core curriculum remained the same, the department adopted its current name in 1992, and saw a steady improvement in enrollment and even its cachet within the school. (“We got out of the basement!” Coleman says. “Everything you can extract from that metaphor is true.”)
Current chair Hankus Netsky, who took CI classes as an undergrad here, remembers his predecessor Blake playing a Mahalia Jackson record and instructing him to play the song on oboe — and later sending him on a field trip to play with a church group one Sunday.
“He would put you in these situations where you just had no choice but to learn something that was completely out of your comfort zone,” Netsky says. The practice continues. “The thread that connects this department is the fact that musicians who come here recognize they don’t want to be defined by a style.”
Blake, who receives a lifetime achievement award from the school on Saturday, says the goal is to internalize different musical styles on the way toward developing an original sound — not to just cut and paste bits of musical form.
“It’s not just: Oh, let me do a little boogie-woogie to a Mozart thing,” he says, “it’s finding the six or seven notes in their DNA that really depict their personality, and then to make a tapestry.”