Education  Research  Performance  Across Fields

Founder's Message

Ed Sarath, ISIM Founder and President

Why ISIM? Do we really need another organization, another email list, another newsletter, another conference to attend? The more I think about these questions, the more I return to the core idea of the organization, and why ISIM is not only needed, but has the capacity to be truly unique among music organizations.

Photo of Ed Sarath, Isim Founder

We have entered an extraordinarily exciting time in the history of music, when musicians have access to an unprecedented expanse of influences and creative strategies. While improvisation in one form or another is increasingly central to this global synthesis, a significant gap looms between the improvisation-based aesthetic paradigm that guides musical practice, and the aesthetic awareness that prevails in the music industry, academic musical world, and society at large.

In both the commercial and academic sectors, music that does not readily fall into existing compartments tends to be marginalized. In musical study and research, long oriented toward interpretive performance and analysis of composed music, the notion of music that is spontaneously created and performed challenges conventional assumptions about musical structure and worth. As a result, improvisation is relegated to the fringes of both research and curricular programs. Even after decades of appeals for reform, the majority of music majors still graduate with little or often no experience with improvisation. And in jazz education, while improvisation is well-covered, it is confined to a relatively narrow stylistic expanse in light of the richness of the jazz tradition and the overall musical world. (ISIM strongly advocates both style-based and trans-stylistic forms of improvisation.)

We are compelled to address these problems not just because they may affect our personal work, but also because they reflect a lack of awareness of the unifying and transformational power of music and art that is undeniably important to our times. Stephen Nachmanovitch compares the peak experiences possible in improvisation to the “ecstatic states of the Sufis,” as a result of which “performers, audience, instruments, the room, the night outside, space become one being, pulsing.” In Melba Liston’s words, “everybody can feel what each other is thinking . . . You breathe together, you swell together, you just do everything together, and a different aura comes over the room.” A new aesthetic paradigm emerges that is grounded in the simultaneity of creation and performance, the merging of artists and listeners, the communion between musicians of highly disparate backgrounds, and ultimately the access to deeper dimensions of consciousness through improvisation’s spontaneous and integrative creative pathways. When Steve Lacy stated “there is a music that must be composed. There is another music that can only be improvised,” he was not dismissing composed music—the beauty and importance of which few would deny—but rather he was acknowledging the uniqueness of the improvised.

A wider embrace and understanding of improvised music may also offer insights into creativity in a variety of fields. Central to success and fulfillment in a variety of fields—from sports, to medicine, to business, to education—is the ability to engage in moment-to-moment creative activity that is highly improvisatory in nature. While ISIM's primary thrust is, naturally, improvisation in music, the probing of extramusical ramifications can be seen as an organic extension of this process, and a cross-disciplinary approach to improvisation may even in turn illuminate improvisation in music.

ISIM brings together artists, listeners, teachers, critics, scholars, and industry leaders to celebrate the unifying power of improvisation in music and beyond. Please consider joining us in this important and exciting endeavor.