The Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra gears up for a busy spring

Ofir Klemperer leads the Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra at The END Project Space in 2022. 
Courtesy of Ofir Klemperer

Credit: Courtesy of Ofir Klemperer

Credit: Courtesy of Ofir Klemperer

Ofir Klemperer leads the Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra at The END Project Space in 2022. Courtesy of Ofir Klemperer

The instrumentalists sat on chairs in a horseshoe at the front for Emory University’s Cherry Logan Emerson Concert Hall, patiently waiting for their conductor. But this was no typical ensemble — a violinist shared space with an artist armed with recorders and an ocarina; a trombonist doubling on acoustic guitar sat near the drum kit; a viola da gamba player positioned himself near the front, ahead of the electric bassist. Eighteen or so musicians, and one dancer, had come together on a Sunday evening in early February to create a fully improvised work of art just for themselves.

The conductor at this semiregular rehearsal of the Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra wasn’t there to beat out a strict meter with a baton, either. When the musicians started playing, Ofir Klemperer began describing to them the signal he’d be making with his hands. These visual cues told them how loud and how fast to play, and everything in between. He waved his hands at the collective, describing the musical move:

“Formulate some opinion about where this is going to go, but don’t do it — yet,” he said raising his hands to a swell of music before moving onto the next signal. “By this moment, you should have an opinion what is this thing and where you can take it.”

Ofir Klemperer leads the Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra.

Credit: Katherine Cunningham

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Credit: Katherine Cunningham

The sound should have bordered on cacophony — no prescribed notes, meter or rhythm. No clear division of voices. What emerged instead was a controlled, fragile and delicate shape, wafting into the air from a motley assortment of instruments.

Klemperer and the rotating cast of two dozen Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra members have a busy few months ahead. First up, members of the AIO will appear with the Artifactual String Unit at Atlanta’s SoundNow festival on March 26. Cellist and guitarist Ben Shirley, who runs the AIO with Klemperer, calls Artifactual a “garage band version of a string trio” with heavy rock influences. For the festival, the trio has expanded one of their tunes into a concerto grosso format so the orchestra can join in. Shirley then takes a small group of orchestra members to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, to perform with composer Robert Lundberg. In April, the ensemble hits the road for a gig at {Re}Happening at Black Mountain College outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Also in April, Klemperer is organizing an Earth Day concert with visual artists from Georgia State University.

Klemperer and co. deal in collective improvisation — essentially every musician playing whatever moves them — which can get messy. The conductor’s visual cues put controls on the music making, and the Klemperer and other guest leaders have very clear idea of how to shape the orchestra’s music. While the conductor is not physically playing an instrument, that leader is very much crafting the output.

Adding to the texture of each performance is the makeup of the group. The ensemble mix of professional musicians with amateurs is by design.

“The people who are not necessarily trained bring something vital to this,” Klemperer said.

He said the devotion and the work amateur musicians put into creating new ideas unlocks new avenues for the ensemble to explore.

Klemperer started the orchestra in 2018 after getting plugged into the local improvised music scene. He moved down from Cincinnati and was looking to form a group — “Wherever I go, I start an orchestra,” he said. One musician introduced him to another and so on. Soon the group was playing at Eyedrum.

“We had two very successful shows, and then one that one person showed,” he said. “I’m OK with that. I’m interested in everybody participating. I’m not interested in serving an audience … because this music will not necessarily work.”

The pandemic stalled whatever momentum the group had. After pressing pause on gathering the group together for a year — Klemperer and Shirley both started families — the ensemble tip-toed back into rehearsals at Majid Araim’s Magic Lantern performance space.

“There’s a lot of different scenes intersecting in this group,” Shirley said. “It was a special group that just needed to keep going to get us through this period where we don’t know what’s happening.”

Back at February rehearsal, Klemperer looked over the assembled musicians, thinking about the coming months.

“I see at least two people who I have never met before,” he marveled.

In addition to improvisation, AIO will continue incorporating composed pieces, perhaps working with a soloist in a concerto setting down the road. All of that requires building momentum and bringing new improvisers into the fold, continually bringing the Atlanta improvising scene new ideas and creative music.


IF YOU GO

Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra at Atlanta SoundNOW

8 p.m. March 26. $10. First Existentialist Congregation, 470 Candler Park Drive NE, Atlanta. atlantasoundnowfestival.com.

Members of AIO with Robert Lundberg at Big Ears

3 p.m. March 31. $350-$400 for festival passes. 106 E. Jackson Ave., Knoxville, Tennessee. bigearsfestival.org.

{Re}Happening

3 p.m. April 8. $15-$37. Black Mountain College, 375 State Road 2468, Black Mountain, North Carolina. 828-350-8484 blackmountaincollege.org/rehappening.