Have you ever seen a stand-up bass wearing a hat? Everyone at Mills’ Concert Hall March 6 certainly did.
A member of the Stanford Improvisation Collective perched a bright yellow baseball hat backward on his instrument during the musical performance. It was one of many visuals accompanying their portion of the evening, along with a few cross-dressing members. The wardrobe for the night, according to Stanford Director Mark Applebaum, “was a long journey” with no ready explanation for the final result.
Instead, the journey for both [sic] and the Mills Improvisational Ensemble culminated in an evening of unpredictable music, as promised. The instruments were a mix, ranging from flute to stand-up bass and bass-guitar to saxophone with vocals thrown in. All were played in unorthodox ways, such as opening the top of the piano and using special mallets to play it from inside.
MIE, directed by Mills Music Professor, Fred Frith, opened the night with a piece from his Friendly Gestures series. The piece was a collection of different types of improvisation, according to Frith, such as restrictions. For example, a restriction might be only being allowed to play one note. The improvisation comes in because the musician gets to choose the note. Nothing is planned but it is still contained within a structure. The resulting music ranged from a cacophony of sound to a delicate conversation between the artists.
The MIE has 13 members this spring, all graduate students. The ensemble opens to everyone in the Fall, however. It is particularly unique because it reflects on the masters’ program that allows for specialization in improvisation, which is the only of its kind according to David Bernstein, head of the Music Department. The program was launched in 2004 with the first graduate receiving a diploma last summer. There are currently nine students in the program, exploring what Bernstein called a rapidly growing field.
Stanford took stage for the second part of the evening, performing several shorter numbers in lieu of a longer one. And by “take the stage,” they actually spent the first two numbers wandering the nearly empty concert hall. Applebaum began the first piece by clicking his pen, which led to a series of everyday noises. Included in the makeshift instruments were a deck of cards, a metal water bottle, a matchbox car, a roll of tape and car keys. The group, which only meets during the Winter Quarter, was founded in 2003 and is open to all majors and all musical backgrounds.
The other pieces performed by [sic] were student composed and included a musical trio, a quartet in a piece that was as appealing visually as it was acoustically, and a final vocals only performance. The night ended with both groups performing together in what Applebaum called a “Transbay Collision,” led by Frith. New instruments were brought to the stage, including an accordion and a xylophone.
This was the first time [sic] has officially come to play with MIE, though some of the Stanford students have come over for Thursday Night Special, the student run concerts for works in progress. It was the first trip to Mills for Stanford Junior Sam Adams, who described the night as “chaotic and hectic” under Frith’s direction.
“But that’s okay because this music is supposed to be exactly that,” Adams said.
This performance was one of 17 put on by the Music Department throughout the year, of all types of music. Frith calls it “the best concert series in the Bay Area – and it’s free.”