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Grants to spur mixed-ability jam sessions using computerized instrument

Thursday, January 05, 2017

LAWRENCE — A group of University of Kansas professors has received a $35,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to stage a symposium, including performances, focusing on a computerized musical instrument that allows people of all abilities, including those with little or no voluntary movement, to participate in group improvisation.

The KU award is one of a series of nearly 1,000 grants valued at $26 million issued in December by NEA’s Art Works program. The NEA says the funds support “the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement … lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.”

The NEA grant follows a $10,000 Starter Grant awarded earlier this year by The Commons, a partnership among KU’s Biodiversity Institute, Hall Center for the Humanities and Spencer Museum of Art.

Sherrie Tucker, a professor of American studies who has written extensively about musical performance, has worked with the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument, or AUMI, for nine years. Created 10 years ago by composer Pauline Oliveros, AUMI is a software interface that can be installed on any desktop or tablet computer equipped with a camera. The AUMI uses the camera to capture physical movement and trigger an almost infinite variety of sounds, from bells to drums to synthesizer tones. It thus allows people to make music with whatever movement their body performs; even a small tilt of a chin can access the entire range of sounds. Plug-in devices have also been used with the AUMI to transmit sound vibrations in tactile ways for deaf participants.

“I was interested in the AUMI, and particularly its use in mixed-ability improvisation, because it seemed to offer models for how people can be more attuned to each other and learn ways of being together that benefit more people more of the time,” Tucker said.

While she loves jazz in particular, Tucker said she is less interested in virtuosity and more in “how knowledge is transmitted within a group when everyone really listens to everyone else, and they find ways to jam together that are about that group, on that day.”

“That’s becoming harder to find in jazz,” Tucker said. “I’m interested in the ways people create new forms of community by playing music together, and this project really grabbed me.”

Tucker and her colleagues — Abbey Dvorak, assistant professor of music therapy; Bryan “Kip” Haaheim, professor of music composition; Michelle Heffner-Hayes, professor and chair of the Department of Dance, and Nicole Hodges Persley, associate professor and acting department chair of theatre — have employed the AUMI in a series of performances by mixed-ability groups, working with the Lawrence Public Library’s Sound + Vision Studio, and the local independent-living resource center Independence Inc., among others. They plan to use the grant to build upon that work next year.

Activities set for August include a weeklong workshop for people with limited mobility, a community performance with Canadian guest multidisciplinary artist Jesse Stewart and a meeting of an international research consortium dedicated to further development of the AUMI.

Performances will take place both at The Commons at Spooner Hall on the KU campus and at the Lawrence Public Library.

“We’re excited about the grants,” Tucker said. “We hope to get more attention for the instrument and to learn more about the social, political and artistic benefits of improvising across abilities.”

Top photos: KU students work in Lawrence Public Library’s Sound/Vision Lab in partnership with Independence, Inc. to offer jam sessions that bring together community members of all abilities. Images courtesy KU Marketing Communications. Bottom right: Professor Sherrie Tucker uses the AUMI device on her iPad. Photo by Rick Hellman.