Improvisation – Part 1

Since it is now up to day four and I haven’t had much time to write , I’m going to focus on themes rather than trying to go back and give a day-by-day account. There is so much to think about that this will hopefully focus my writing a little and also help to preserve some of these thoughts and ideas for myself when I head back to Australia.

Improvisation class is at 2:30 every day, and has become one of my favourite times. It’s taken by Tom, the piano teacher, and focuses on ways to direct free improvisation so that we can produce meaningful and interesting pieces. Basically, instead of saying “just go for it”, we’re experimenting with parameters that can aid us creatively. I think this is ideal for me, as I’ve done some improvisation before in set styles (mostly jazz), but if I had to get up on stage and just improvise I would have no idea where to start. This lack of ability, in my mind, really sets a lot of classical musicians apart from those working in other genres – I certainly believe we should be able to improvise, but wouldn’t know where to begin.

We have had three classes so far, and they have made use of improvisation ‘games’. On Monday, we played Cobra, a piece/game where a prompter uses cards to direct the music. The cards can get us to play in groups or as individuals, to swap roles or team up and copy a partner’s music, and can save musical moments for later if they’re interesting. If musicians are unhappy with what’s going on, they can employ ‘guerrilla tactics’ – putting on a hat and doing whatever they want – for short period of time. The game is fast-paced and fun, though it is almost entirely up to the prompter how the form of the piece works out.

On Tuesday, as well as a game of Cobra, we experimented with ways that one of the group could vary elements of the performance. We started out working with short motives from each player, and Tom encouraged us to think outside the box a bit in terms of perceived meter. At the start, most musicians chose to play in four, while the more interesting textures came rather from us having the confidence to think in other beat patterns. Then, I was given the role of ‘director’, but only of how dense the texture was. While also playing, I had to walk between pillars in the hall, with the pillar closest to the stage indicating that we had to only play one note of our motif, and the farthest pillar that we had to play five or six. We then added people with the same control over dynamics and tempo, meaning that we all had to do a lot of watching. The piece was interesting from an interaction point of view, though it was interesting to note that the variables were not totally independent – musicians naturally play louder when they get faster!