Column Name


At a Refugee Camp: New Ways to Improvise


Using Art to Overcome Boundaries


My goal for my Fulbright year was to partake in Berlin’s Echtzeitmusik scene, which emerged in the early 1990s as a free improvisation movement in collective musicmaking. At Juilliard, I had become interested in improvisation, which I thought provided a necessary escape from the rigidity of interpreting written music. I had an instinct that it was crucial in allowing my mind and body the agency and freedom to express itself, and I assumed that for me to become a “good” improviser, I needed to learn the constraints and rules that would allow improvised music to become acceptable and permissible.

Johnna Wu

While studying in Berlin, Johnna Wu had the opportunity to play with a talented violinist staying in a Syrian refugee camp. 

(Photo by Christopher See)

Related Stories

Related Stories: 


Having lived in Berlin for several months, I realize how limited my perception was. Improvising with many musicians from eclectic backgrounds in a diverse city has allowed me the freedom to expand my horizons not only artistically but also in the way I view human interactions. It has also let me experience how improvisation in music can act as a prototype for how connections and communication can occur.

George Lewis, a Columbia University composer, musician, writer, and musicology professor, elucidates the idea that improvisation is a way of reacting for the sake of interacting in one’s constantly evolving environment—and that it helps us understand the human condition. Every situation I’ve encountered here has required me to improvise and react to a set of circumstances to cope with the daunting challenges of living in a new country. I’ve found that what’s even more important than communicating effectively through words is the desire and the effort to do so. The more ways we willingly receive and react to each other, the more meaningful the relationship becomes. We use what we know to enter into an interaction, and the more tools we have at our disposal, the more enriching our interactions will be. People can be hesitant to describe profound interactions as inherently improvisatory, in part because of a fear of making “mistakes,” but as Lewis says, we only make mistakes in improvising when we miss a chance to engage and thus learn and grow.

The most transformative experience I’ve had stemmed from my taking the chance to react to the thousands of Middle Eastern refugees arriving in Germany since I’ve been here. Emergency refugee shelters have been erected all over Berlin, and not long after I arrived, I began volunteering at the one at the defunct Tempelhof Airport, which had been constructed by the Nazis and became a central location for the 1948-49 Berlin airlift.

I had heard about a talented musician from Syria named Nizar staying in the shelter and decided to seek him out. Upon our first meeting, he pointed to a poster in English and Arabic and told me how only a few days ago, a great pianist from the U.S. came here and performed an all- Beethoven recital for them. The pianist on the poster was none other than Emanuel Ax (Pre-College ’66; Diploma ’70, Postgraduate Diploma ’72, piano; faculty), who had stopped by while on a tour to meet the refugees and thank the volunteers.

Nizar showed me his violin and his collection of Arabic instruments—an oud, which is similar to a lute, and different types of ney, which are like flutes. He demonstrated for me on his violin several maqam (scale) systems of Arabic music and how they differ from the modes used in the Western system and also showed me how the violin is tuned to accommodate certain maqam that require different placements of microtones. Then he tuned his violin back into open fifths, handed it to me, and without another word, he began playing a few notes on the oud and gestured for me to join him.

When Nizar handed me his violin, the questions of whether I am an adequate musician, whether I am capable of adapting to a different style of music were presumably not thoughts in his mind. By unquestioningly handing me his violin, he was inviting me to enter a dialogue and conversation about our respective worlds. By creating music through improvising, we were creating an open area dedicated to expressing ourselves and sharing our stories, and building a place where we were permitted to transgress our boundaries and react to each other’s sense of time and place.

Coming to Berlin for the sake of studying improvisation in music seems a bit ironic now, since the act of engaging and reacting to people and circumstances in a new country has been the greatest lesson for me in the necessity of improvisation.

This spring two second-year master’s students, violist Jossalyn Jensen and composer Anthony Stillabower, received Fulbright awards. Jensen, who's from Salt Lake City, Utah, will study at the Paris Conservatoire and Stillabower, who's from Nineveh, Nev., at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. 



Popular Columns

Recent Issues