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My Hero: Joan Wildman
Leap of imagination
on
Wildman's music is always a trip, thanks to her ceaseless experimentation.
Wildman's music is always a trip, thanks to her ceaseless experimentation.

Every time I see avant-garde pianist Joan Wildman, she's working on something new. That might not sound unusual, but for this 72-year-old explorer, "new" is a profound concept.

Wildman's cheerful determination to push onward to the next musical frontier - leaving behind cliché, certainty and the likelihood of mainstream success - has made her a hero of mine since I first interviewed her for an Isthmus profile. She proves that life can be a continual process of discovery if only you open yourself to the possibilities.

It took a leap of imagination for Wildman to envision an unconventional artistic career as she grew up on a Nebraska ranch. She studied piano, mastered classical music and jazz, and embarked on an academic path that brought her to the UW-Madison School of Music in the 1970s. I continue to meet people of all ages around town who speak reverently of learning jazz improvisation at her knee. Her enthusiasm for the creative process has clearly made a big impression on her students.

Wildman's music is always a trip, thanks to her ceaseless experimentation. It's generally jazz-based but can't be limited by any label as it seeks new rhythms, new forms and new textures with help from the latest electronic technology. Listeners with militantly guarded ears might find it hard to take, but then again, I've seen Wildman and her various ensembles win over the most unlikely audiences with the music's idiosyncratic beauty and wit.

Wildman is now retired from the university, and she doesn't play out much anymore. But she continues to search for new sounds in her home studio as intensely as ever. As long as you keep searching, you never stagnate - that's what I've learned from the first lady of Madison's avant-garde.

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