Improvisation – Part 2

Finally I return to writing a little about my experiences over the last two weeks. SoundSCAPE was busy and life is short – I decided it was better to enjoy my time in Maccagno (and the occasional few hours of sleep) rather than forcing myself to write every day. E alora, I find myself at the end of it! All went far too fast, but I am still keen to reflect on what I’ve learned…

Improvisation continued to be one of my favourite classes, and I now feel much more confident with ideas of structure, form and timbre in free improv. For the rest of the first week we continued to experiment with some set ways of controlling the piece. As ABA form is quite pleasing, we worked on small group pieces where Tom walked back and forth along the front of the auditorium to indicate transitions from A to B and back. It took us a while to be confident in arriving at a B section that was radically different from the A section, either in terms of texture or motivic material. Not playing all the time is one way of achieving this, and knowing when to sit out is important. For me, wedded to the flute as my mode of expression, it was good to try and get away from the instrument. The range of sounds on stage is so much more interesting if we also make use of vocalisation and any percussive ideas that spring to mind.

In the second week, the aim was to achieve interesting, unified improvisational without clear direction from a conductor or external force. A lot of this comes from listening to others, borrowing ideas and knowing when to lead or follow. I often found that this was a groove that it took a while to get into; the first improv I did in each class would be pretty average on both an individual and sometimes a group level. Once we had done a few, the process began to feel more natural and the pieces were both more unified structurally and more daring.

Our one piece of ‘homework’ for the week involved creating the structure for an improvised duet. I was with Jessie, and with two flutes we needed a plan that would create structure and interest through something other than the fundamental difference of our instrumental timbres. We decided to control structure by our physical placement on the stage: we would start on opposite sides and come together, then return. When far apart, we would toss ideas back and forth, sharing motivic material and elaborating on what the other had played, but waiting for them to finish before we began. As we moved closer together we would aim for increasing density in our texture, still sharing material but interrupting when we felt like it and being more direct with our musical statements. I really enjoyed experimenting with this idea; the duet form made for intense interaction and Jessie is great fun to improvise with. Though we weren’t over the moon about how the performance went in class, a commitment to really ‘go for it’ in the concert on Thursday made for a fun, engaging piece.

Following a game of Cobra, duets and some small ensemble free improvisations, the concert concluded with a piece called Blurred that Tom had brought along. This was once again improvisation with constraints – the piano played a cyclic chord progression from a score and we (in surround sound) played notes that we heard in the chords. We could start playing notes once we heard them, but didn’t have to drop out the moment they stopped, creating a blurring of each chord into the next. In the classes we were mostly playing with long notes, but for the concert changed to more rhythmic statements on a given pitch. While this wasn’t my favourite piece, it was great for ear training and the audience seemed to enjoy the effect!

Now my dilemma is how to continue working on improvisation, as I do think it is a wonderful skill and one that we don’t explore nearly enough as students of western classical music. Playing alone is one thing, and I will try to incorporate it into my practice. But I also need to recruit some friends to practice and explore with, and I think it’s something that needs to happen with relative frequency. Food for thought, and for a musically open mind!

2 thoughts on “Improvisation – Part 2

  1. As soon as I finished reading this post I recalled this particular Victor Borge video ( where he improvises the piano accompaniment for Monti’s Czardas.
    It feels like it’s one of those things where the more experience in music one has overall, the easier it is. To me it feels like linking known fragments or short melodies together and transposing on the spot if necessary.

    Probably best to get a couple of friends together and go through the same activities with them. It’ll reinforce the methods for you, and you’ll naturally get people you can improvise with.

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