Improv musicians build on film

By Jake Saunder

It could be said music is one of the most important elements in a film. Composers often spend months perfecting their scores to match a film’s mood. 

But several musicians did not have time on their side Sunday night when they prepared music on the spot for Improv Squared, part of the university’s Outside the Box music festival. Kathleen Ginther, a senior lecturer of music composition, directed the festival, designed to showcase contemporary pieces coming from SIU’s School of Music. But the pieces aren’t meant to be School of Music-exclusive, she said.

“We always try to do something that involves other entities on campus,” she said. “We’ve worked some with filmmakers before and these are some very terrific, like-minded people who are creative artists but in a different medium.”


Ginther said professors and students in different educational units within the university can be so focused on their own school that they miss out on creative work happening elsewhere at SIU, and the event aimed to rectify that disconnect.

John McCowen, a senior from Herrin studying music composition, is part of the four-piece SIU Improv Unit, the group that provided the evening’s music. As short films created by cinema and photography students and faculty played on a screen, the unit created music emulating the audience’s reaction to the images.

“When the audience would applaud, it would cause a shift in us immediately,” he said. “We were eventually just reacting to everything going on in (the) space.”

Ron Coulter, SIU Improv Unit leader and senior lecturer of percussion, improvisation and jazz studies, said the group had never seen the visuals before and did not see them during their collaborative performance. Coulter was responsible for creating a series of feedback sounds to work as background for the piano and woodwinds.

“(Improv Squared) was a presentation of simultaneity, two equal things, rather than just video with sound accompaniment,” he said.

But Coulter is no stranger to this type of improvisation — he has created both composed sound for video and freely improvised sound in real-time with visual media. However, improvised music is the best kind of music — it’s made by the player, for the player, without any interferences, he said.

“People talk about music as expressing emotion,” Coulter said. “If you agree with that perspective, then this is the most purely expressive music possible because it’s coming from the people that are making it, rather than some composer from hundreds of years ago telling us what to do through the score.”


Ginther said the organizers geared the event to stimulate and inspire, while also directing an artist in one medium to view the work of an artist in another, to gain an appreciation, in this case, for improvisation.

“Sometimes working together results in surprising, unpredictable correspondences,” Ginther said.

Jake Saunders can be reached at [email protected]on Twitter @saundersfj or at 536-3311 ext. 254.