Music Curio: Improvisers Exchange Sheds Sonic Shreds

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Jason Finkelman and Saori Kataoka go at it at an Improvisers Exchange performance

Improvisers Exchange exudes experimental sounds at the Rose Bowl Tavern every first Monday of the month from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Organized and directed by Jason Finkelman, Improvisers Exchange is a fluctuating eclectic ensemble of musicians, all of whom share a buzz for creative communal genesis of sound experiments, more specifically “omni-idiomatic improvisation.” Finkelman thought up this term to denote an ideal approach welcoming all styles, simultaneously integrating any mixture of styles and instruments into a single improv-jam, where sound-comrades may match, blend, or contrast, cultivating a kind of calico cosmos. With participation open to the community, Finkelman also runs the ensemble as a workshop at U of I during school months, and has featured special guests such as Mai Sugimoto, David Rosenboom, and Tatsuya Nakatani. I’ll take you on a musical tour of a few past events. It may inspire you to seek out their future happenings.


One balmy afternoon, set under a white tent strewn with lightbulbs, sits a stage taken over by XLR cords jumbled like seaweed and sparkling with microphones. In the background hangs a white banner stamped boldly in red old-saloon font: “Rose Bowl.” Spool tables and old 1970s plastic beige-grey chairs sport local folk underneath a dangling “Dark Side of the Moon.” Finkelman contributes grooves and sound effects through world instruments, found objects, mixed percussion, and computer and pedal electronics. When asked about his multifarious smorgasbord of instruments, he reverizes, “I’ve accumulated many sound objects over the years. The old-fashioned aluminum cooking pots and Dutch ovens were always a favorite part of my setup. I don’t use Bundt cake pans, but they often sound good too.” Alongside Jason, Mateo Sanchez smashes percussion, upbeat funky rhythms splaying everywhere, and bubbles of bell sounds waft in the breeze from Luke Bergkoetter on his uniquely portable vibraphone . . . the humidity threatens a storm. Luke is a local musician in several rock/post-punk projects. Mateo, a graduate in Jazz Percussion at UIUC, runs the Afro LTA, an Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble not to be missed! After a number of haunting states of sound, it’s intermission time. Jason rounds up friends and other local musicians from the audience to participate in the last set of experimental soup.


Another first Monday production, this time set inside the rosy dive with its fake wood paneling and Formica tables, the stage set as an altar. Somber long tones soar from Saori Kataoka on flugelhorn. Jason plucks a faster-moving melodic riff on something that sounds like a small, charming music box—it’s actually an African instrument called mbira, a.k.a. “thumb piano,” made of wood and pluckable thin little strips of metal. Cellist Briar Schlenker accentuates with sparse brief tones, which begin to support a rhythmic uptick in tempo. The increase in energy of all players evolves into fast repetitious percussive patterns becoming a convulsive exaltation. Eventually, a calm-down gradually ensues and returns to the original mellow state of subdued long tones on the flugelhorn, almost dying out. But they’re not ready to end, as soon the tones shrink to shorter durations, transforming to a faster, more excited state, and eventually become a cosmic stew of echoey musical reverb. We are now altered by those upon the altar.


The next set features Jason playing flute-like tones from a stainless steel flexline, normally used as a gasline. As he bends the pipe, eerie higher-partial whistle tones vaporize like ghosts. Saori brings forth sounds from a spiral of tubing that looks something like a baby trombone missing a slide. Neither does it have the pitch-controlling valves normally seen on a trumpet, as it’s a baroque trumpet adorned with a satiny royal blue tassel. Tones on this device cannot be produced by the help of hands, but merely via changing air force and mouth-shape. Amongst the golden tones of the baroque trumpet and howling of the flexline, haunting harmonics from the cello are infused in a dervish demeanor from Briar. The trio builds the tension and the tempo surges. Suddenly: weird sound! What is that? What is that thing?? Not a Jabberwocky, but a jaw harp. Jason has it in his mouth, and soon accompanies its springy sounds with growling singing like a Tuvan [Siberian people known for throat singing]. Briar matches this new development with cello scratch-tones. Jason travels out of Mongolia and to the electronics, overlapping the scratch-tones with low grumbly bubbling liquid lava. Saori has simmered down on the trumpet and comes to a halt . . . but, what is she doing now? The baroque trumpet is in pieces! She picks up a short portion of tubing from which she begins to blow bubbles . . . no, actually high-pitched animal squeeks. Through the rest of this set, the baroque trumpet transforms a number of times to smaller and larger sizes that produce different ranges of sounds. The mbira eventually makes a comeback. Now, to how many countries have we been? Or is that planets too?

Like the last happening of Improvisers Exchange, again after the intermission, other musician-friends from the community are invited up for communal clamor. Briar travels his chops to and from cello and piano, and guest instrumentalists play electric guitar, bass, and a small synth-keyboard resonating organ-like rich chords. What started out something psychedelic ends as something of a polka. Voodoo tapestry travel.

The ensemble begins tuning for the last communal jaunt. Oh, but wait . . . I was fooled, that’s actually the piece, it has already begun. Now our brass includes Sax to friend the Flugelhorn. The electric guitar generates sparse melodic tones detuning . . . or are they tuning to something else? The electric bass interjects with very deep, low, fast spurts of notes crisscrossing sax pops while the trumpet rustles tinfoil like the sound of a hurricane. The guitar transitions into true melodies as the flugelhorn once again returns with trepid tremolos, escalating glissandos, and gibberish bisbigliandos . . . my ears are intriguingly offended in a nostalgic kind of way.

And a final taste of yet another Monday event under the tent: our opening trio transmits theremin to the streets. Ambient electric guitar notes sound distant, echoing and breathing like dinosaurs in a primeval forest. The computer electronics crackle dryly, like thin small metal jacks clacking, and Moog bleeps and bips evolve into a mellow oscillation, airy sirens, and sounds of static electricity. Today’s lineup is theremin-ista Joy Yang, who also brings her chops on keyboards; Jason with his suitcase of surprises; Briar feeling Moogy, Chris Hartley exuding electric guitar, Joseph Kahn manipulating acoustic computer creations, and I’ll let you imagine the rest . . . but, even better: if you’d like to hear-see-smell-taste what Improvisers Exchange has coming out its sleeve next, go get your grit at the Rosebowl every first Monday of the month.

Look out for special guest Jason Kao Hwang as artist-in-residence March 1–4, 2023, who will join Finkelman in a duo performance on Thursday, March 2 in Allen Hall, and lead an Improvisers Exchange workshop on Friday, March 3, from 3 to 5 pm in the Orchestral Rehearsal Room at Krannert Center. Information about Improvisers Exchange may be accessed here. Jason Finkelman is also the coordinator of the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music at UIUC, and hosts a radio show on WEFT 90.1 FM called “Fanfare for the Speeding Bullet” on Sunday evenings from 8 to 10 pm.

Sarah Rose Stiles is a composer and pianist with interest in an eclectic span of music. Beyond working on a Doctorate of Musical Arts at UIUC, she participates in the local community samba group Bloco Gavião, is learning the art of Angola Capoeira, and indulges in creative writing, arts, science, and nature and outdoor activities, with concern for environmental and social justice. Visit her at

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