CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Improvisation is a common thread that ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has found to be present in the musical practices and traditions of just about every culture he has examined during the past 40 years - whether among the peoples of Iran/Persia and India or the American Blackfoot Indians.
His interest in improvisation, however, dates back to his childhood in Prague.
"My parents were in the field of classical music, and father had a student who went to India in 1935," said Nettl, an emeritus professor in the School of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "To me, music was meant to occur sitting in front of a music stand. But when my father's student returned from India, I remember him telling me, 'They have this wonderful music that they play right out of their heads.' "
Since that fantastic notion of improvisation was first planted in Nettl's young head, the ethnomusicologist has spent a lifetime exploring the subject. In fact, you might say he wrote the book on it and defined it. His 1998 book, "In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation" (University of Chicago Press) provides an overview of the topic and its research history, and includes scholarship by others on topics ranging from Italian lyrical singing to Javanese gamelan music.
Nettl also contributed the definition of "improvisation" to both the Harvard Dictionary of Music and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Simply stated, he defines it as "the creation of music in the course of performance."
Now Nettl is bringing the topic home to Illinois as the primary organizer of an interdisciplinary and intercultural conference, planned for April 1-4 on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
The four-day event, "Improvisation: New Directions in the Study of Musical Improvisation," takes place in various campus locations and venues, and will feature lectures, panel discussions, lecture-demonstrations and concerts by musicians and scholars from Illinois and elsewhere. Presenters hail from just about every musical genre represented in the university's music school - from jazz to classical to indigenous/world music.
"Improvisation is a subject about which just about everyone in the field of music can contribute," Nettl said. In fact, he added, it's a topic of interest to all manner of artists. And for that reason, Nettl has included dance, theater and visual arts scholars on the program as well.
The conference opens at noon on April 1 with a free concert featuring Persian classical music by santour master Manoochehr Sadeghi and accompanying artists, in the lobby of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana.
All events are free and open to the public. A complete schedule of activities is available on the Web.