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‘Third Stream,’ At 40:

‘Third Stream,’ At 40:

NEC marks a milestone in its Contemporary Improvisation Program.

The first day that Hankus Netsky walked into the New England Conservatory of Music, he started practicing in a hallway and a guard threw him out.

“The building wasn’t open yet,” he recalls with a laugh. Not a comment on his playing, fortunately.

When he got back into the building “legally,” he wandered into a rehearsal studio where the great jazz pianist Ran Blake, a faculty member, was practicing. Blake urged him to take out his sax and the two played together for a while.

It was a haimish introduction to what was then the “Third Stream” program, now the Contemporary Improvisation Program of the Conservatory, which is currently in the midst of of a yearlong celebration of its 40 years of existence. That celebration will culminate next month in a series of concerts in New York City.

Netsky certainly felt comfortable at NEC; he’s been there ever since, first as a student, then as a faculty member, and now as chair of Contemporary Improvisation.

The idea of “Third Stream” music, a term coined by Gunther Schuller, who co-founded the program with Blake in 1972, was the fusion of classical and jazz music, but in less than a decade that concept had evolved to include a literal world of other musical influences as well, from Indian classical traditions to klezmer. The latter was introduced by Netsky in his very first lecture at the school.

The goal of the Contemporary Improvisation Program is simple. As Schuller has said, it is turning out “complete musicians.”

Netsky elaborates, “We train composer-performer-improvisers. The penetration of vernacular musics [into the academic music world] was the big news of the 20th century. It’s about new timbres, the idea that there’s not just one way to play an instrument. Our program takes in the reality of what it’s like to have to learn music, and the musical world has come to resemble our program.”

The idea of a musician who is a composer, a performer and an improviser simultaneously isn’t exactly new, even in the classical world. Ask Netsky for an example of such a “complete” musician and he doesn’t invoke his contemporaries; he names Beethoven, Chopin and Paganini.

As for the concert series that celebrates the program’s four decades, it samples the entire, rich palette of the department, from Ran Blake to Sarah Jarosz to the Claudia Quintet to Frank London and Greg Wall.

With the celebrations of the past nearly over, Netsky is equally comfortable with the future.

He says, “My job is to train musicians — creative musicians — to be composer-performer-improvisers, to give them the tools to learn, the skills they need, to face conceptual questions about the music.”

The New England Conservatory’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Contemporary Improvisation Program will take place March 17-23, with events at the Cornelia Street Café, Symphony Space and Barbes. For details of the schedule and more information, go to or check with the individual venues.