Monday, March 16, 2009


The use and implementation of recordings have always been a controversial issue in music circles, since the technology in a lot of ways had managed to revolutionize people's conceptions of the musical experience in itself. During the Romantic and late-Romantic eras (~19th century), music establishments began to facilitate the "genius" narrative into its cultural discourse, emphasizing the "vision" and enlightened ideals of the composer over the expression of the performer. As a result, notational practices became more specific as to tailor the music towards the composer's subjective experiences and perspectives.

The invention and implementation of the recording, however, allowed music to be abstracted in a completely different way, turning Romanticism up on its head. The technology allowed music to be "captured" into a fixed form, after the fact, as opposed to notational practices in which the abstraction exists a priori. Popular, folk, and jazz musics partially owe its success (at least in terms of its commercial and influential value) to recordings, because it was largely the technology that enabled those styles of musics to disseminate into the public sphere.

With that in mind, as an improvisor I think that it is important to recognize the fact that the recording medium is largely used for two purposes -- as means of capturing a musical event, while at the same time providing a vehicle to broadcast it beyond its original context. The question of whether or not musicians should be recording their improvisations is something people have been asking themselves ever since the invention of the phonograph, and now that access to cheap and reliable recording equipment is fairly commonplace the issue has become something that musicians face on a fairly regular basis. Broadly speaking, within the world of improvisation there seems to be three main attitudes toward the recording medium:

1) Purists - Opposed to recordings on any level, arguing that performances should be live and live only. The defiant attitude against the technology usually stems from political reasons, arguing that recordings distort and filter out too many things from the live experience, as well as commodify the event in such a way that makes it vulnerable to political appropriation.

2) Documentors - Are willing to record their sessions, but with minimal or no edits. Tries to maintain the objectivity of the event as much as possible by treating the microphone as an outside observer/listener.

3) Editors/Composers - Are completely willing to edit, process, and alter the recorded material after the fact. This approach is much closer to the act of composition compared to the other two, and includes musicians such as DJs and laptop performers who use process-oriented tasks as their primary means of achieving variation.

These categories tend to be hyperboles, however, and it's rare (especially nowadays) to find people who would strongly identify themselves as being part of one of these "camps". In reality, most improvisors tend to use each approach methodically according to circumstance, although some may find themselves more comfortable doing one thing or the other as a matter of personal preference.

"Pure" improvisation tends to be good for pedagogical situations or playing with someone for the first time -- this relieves the pressure of having to "produce" something and allows the musicians to perform privately amongst themselves. The musicians can then focus more on communication, listening, and developing a relationship with the other performers rather than worry about the product that might come out of the process.

The "documentational" approach is useful for reviewing and reflecting on the sessions that had been recorded. Good or bad, how a musician "feels" after a jam session can sometimes be deceptive when compared to the actual result -- this helps to ground the experience into something tangible, so that it can be viewed from a different perspective. Many musicians have used self-recording as a way to gauge their skills and identify areas in their performances of where they might be able to improve upon.

The "editing" approach tends to find itself most often used in electronic music, where recorded samples are used as building blocks for creating larger-scale pieces. It is also used heavily in film and video productions, where improvised musics are used to "fill-in" certain durations of time, or in other cases, used as material for the mixer's whim. Samples can also be used as a basis for composed works, which seems to be gaining a lot of traction in the electronic music world at this point.

For better or worse, the presence of the recording device tends to do something to a person's state of mind, and it's fairly remarkable how drastically some musicians' playing styles change with the knowledge that they're in the midst of being recorded. It's kind of like being looked under an aural microscope, where your every move is being monitored and recorded, which can greatly increase anxiety levels for many performers.

In order to get more comfortable with the idea, it may help to remember that the recording medium is a fairly new technology and Western society has not yet developed proper "methods" of how to behave in front of a microphone as of yet. So there aren't any real "rules", per se, although there are certain physicalities that the musician has to consider if they're looking to get a clean, commercially viable recording. But if that's not really the intension of the session -- say, if you were only recording something to get a general idea of where your current skills lie -- then it doesn't really make sense to spend a great deal of time worring about the gritty details of how the recording might sound post-production.

The relationship between the musician and the recording medium can vary wildly according to the needs and long-term goals of the performer. Thinking about these things in advance can help the improvisor make intelligent decisions as to how to deal with the microphone during their performance sessions and hopefully be comfortable with it in its place. A string quartet playing something by Bartok might treat the microphone as an outside observer, while a rock band might use amplification and processing in order to vary the captured sound in itself. Ideally, if a recording device is being used, the musician should be comfortable enough with it that it becomes part of the performance itself. More details will be written about this on a later post.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Self-Expressive Improv

Eric Edberg has a good video of people interested in jumping into improvisation, coming from a classical musician's standpoint -- he pretty much reiterates what's written in the introduction of this site, which goes to show that improvisors tend to have a similar mindset, despite stylistic differences. There are no wrong notes, play what wants to be played, listen to what's going on.

Self-Expressive Improv Part 1
Self-Expressive Improv Part 2
Self-Expressive Improv Part 3

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Variation, Shmariation

Variation is a time-honored method of musical creativity – it simultaneously acknowledges the existence of something recognizable, yet attempts to vary it in some way, hinting at the possibility toward progress. Variations can often be a quick and easy introduction into the act of improvisation, as one finds that the ability to transform motifs and themes lead into possibilities of endless varieties. At the same time, variation is often one of the most difficult skills to develop within improvisational idioms, as it requires the performer to remember, recall, and alter thematic material in interesting ways, in real time, without it becoming redundant.

One method of getting started in the activity would be to play a favorite “lick” from memory, and attempt to vary it in some manner. The types of variations used can be simple and specific as to hear the result in clear terms – louder, softer, faster, slower, transposed up or down, rhythmic alterations, etc. The general rule of thumb in altering motifs is to play the same thing, but in a different way. Alterations are often done through logical reasoning or processes (augmentations, diminutions, transpositions) but this is by no means a requirement – the changes applied can also be done in an intuitive or spontaneous manner as well.

Some musicians found it helpful to record or notate some of the variations that they’ve come up for themselves – this allowed them to develop a palette of figurations that they could use as their disposal. The act of varying themes and motifs in itself is relatively simple, and given enough tries it should become very clear that coming up with original material is actually not that difficult. By thinking in the manner of a composer, the performer gains a sense of empowerment that allows them to gain a deeper understanding of how a musical work comes into being.

Group variations can also be a fairly interesting exercise as well – a motif can be given by a person, then each performer would be asked to vary it in their own way, one at a time. This can serve as a simple exercise for people to demonstrate their interpretive abilities as well as highlight their personality to the rest of their peers. As a derivative of this idea, performers can also play a game of “telephone” where the task is to vary the motif of the person sitting next to them then pass it along in a chained fashion. This requires greater amount of listening on behalf of the individual, since it requires them to respond directly to another person's playing.

If the game turns out to be like any other game of telephone, usually what comes out at the end turns out to be something totally different than what was initially said. Sometimes change happens, even if there's no intention involved.

Follow the Leader

This exercise I learned from taking a master-class with Marcus Stockhausen back in 2005. He's a very good trumpet player with an incredible ear.

The exercise itself was fairly simple -- one player plays a pitch, the second player matches them, the first player moves to another pitch, and then the second player follows. It may sound easy in concept but doing it well actually takes an incredible amount of practice and listening. (Unless you have perfect pitch, which in case it may very well be easy.) Ideally the second player should be able to follow the first person very quickly, and the audible result should sound as if it were a canon.

The task can be simplified by creating limitations on allowed notes; for instance, the two players may agree to play notes that exist only on the C major scale. This will reduce the possible numbers of interval combinations hat can be played, making the process of hearing the changes somewhat easier. This process can also be applied to non-western and non-equal-tempered scales, as long as the mode construction is agreed upon beforehand. The idea behind this exercise is to get the musician familiar with the intervals that exist in a given scale or temperament, so that they're fully aware of its melodic and harmonic possibilities.

If the exercise starts becoming tiresome, the two players may decide to switch roles and establish a new leader. Keep in mind that this exercise is very hard for most people, even experienced ones. I've had a lot of trouble with this, especially since playing the piano lets me somewhat slack on intonation and an exercise like this puts that weakness right on the spotlight. Still, when our group was doing this regularly, our ears were so honed into each other that we could immediately recognize what the other person was playing and use that to our advantage.

On the western equal tempered scale, there are only 12 notes! Sure, there's a lot of possibilities within that, but since it's not infinite, it should theoretically be possible to master all of the intervals within it. Easier said than done, of course...

Time-Based Exercises

At its root, a musical performance just exists as a duration of time – one could decide to do something (or nothing) during that period, but either way the performance is over once the duration has passed. I found it fairly useful to perform (both in individual and group contexts) improv sessions with time limitations – say, 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, and so on. As with doing any activity, the act of playing music in itself will distort one’s perception of time – I've found it helpful to try to reconcile the differences between my personal interpretation of time passing and the objectified nature of the clock because they can often be two very different things.

As an initial exercise, it may be helpful to use a count-down timer and set explicit limitations. It is fairly difficult to intuitively “feel” the duration of a certain time limit – the timer can serve as a tool to guide the performer, similar to the idea of using a metronome to keep a steady metric beat. Eventually the improviser should gain some familiarity with the feelings of certain duration periods, and should be able to approximate the length of each session through intuition.

This exercise is really no different than how someone might plan for a speech or presentation – the presenter is given a limited amount of time to make certain points and accomplish certain things, and must keep the flow of interest going for their audience at all times despite its largely arbitrary length. Teachers are used to dealing with one hour class periods, workers with 15 minute break times, TV-producers with half-hour slots, and so on. Dealing with durational values is very much a part of life -- especially modern life -- where people are expected to adhere to certain time values – these exercises can help the improviser to come to an understanding of how to manage themselves within these structures.

These exercises have practical applications as well, especially when working with multimedia or multidisciplinary projects. Often the director or producer will require the musician to create something of specific length, and this is tends to be non-negotiable in most contexts. Being able to improvise music of an approximate length very quickly greatly reduces the time involved in the editing process – if 5 minutes of music of a certain mood is required, then an improviser might perform something that roughly matches that length. The clip then can be put to use with relatively minor editing processes, saving a great deal of time for both the musician and the producers involved.

Key Modulations

Jazz improvisers are used to looking at music in terms of chords and modes – by looking at the common notes between each chord they gain an understanding of how to navigate melodically through the changes in harmony. In classical music such examples can be seen in composers’ treatment of the idea of key modulations, where the tonal center of the mode gradually shifts from one key to the next.

The simplest (and usually the most commonly found) modulation within western tonality is a key modulation from the tonic to its fifth – C Major to G Major, for example. When playing within a key it is important to understand what notes exist within it – for C Major, CDEFGAB, while G Major, GABCDEF#. The popularity of the dominant modulation lies in the abundance of common tones between them, allowing for relatively smooth transitions from one key to the next.

At first it is helpful to play strictly within one mode to get the feel of how it sounds in its own context. (In this case, in strict C Major or strict G Major.) The task then becomes to modulate from C Major to G Major in the smoothest possible fashion. When attempting to bridge them together, it is important to pay attention to notes that exist out of the scale – the transition from C Major to G Major will produce a new note, the F#, which will initially sound “wrong” to the ear.

A significant reason why many of the composers of the past are remembered today lies in their ability to modulate from key to key with as little perceived dissonance as possible. Often it is the ability to take the audience to another place without them necessarily being aware of it that gives music its influential power – this is an effect that can also be achieved through improvisation if done carefully. Whether playing individually or with a group, the improviser should have a fairly good idea of what key they are playing in, when the key center is shifting, and when it has shifted, even if they may not know exactly when. Initial attempts may be awkward and may end up sounding forced, but with enough practice these bumps can eventually be smoothed out. (As reference, one might study Bach inventions as examples of these modulations happening within notational practices.)

A shift from the tonic to a key a tritone anyway is usually difficult because of the lack of common-tones between the two keys (C D E F G A B -> F#G#A#BC#D#E#), but can bridged together by making pit-stops through other key areas (CDEFGAB -> ABC#DEF#G# -> F#G#A#BC#D#E#). In tonal music, the idea of “dissonance” can often easily be replaced by the idea of “distant” – it’s not that the relationship between C major and F# major is necessarily “dissonant”, but only “distant” in the sense that it takes a longer route to get there.

Using the same principal musicians may be able to learn how to modulate from any key to any key, or from any mode to any mode. These exercises can also be utilized in non-western and non-equal-tempered structures, as long as the common-tones are clearly understood. (Personally I've become fairly attached to the idea of modulating between the "white" and "black" notes on the keyboard, using keys like G and C minor as a bridge between them, but that's just me.) The basic idea of the exercise is to acknowledge the similarities and differences between modal constructions, then attempt to move in between them. These techniques are especially helpful in cross-cultural or polystylistic musics where an inter-leaving of modality becomes an important function – one might notice common intervals between the modal constructions of non-western and western scales, for example, which would allow a musician to invoke more than one style in a simultaneous fashion.

Here is a fugue improvisation done by the A-Tribute Ensemble done in the key of G minor. Chris (cello) starts us off with a theme that the rest of us imitate. After some minutes of doing that, we eventually modulate to D major -- it's not clear exactly where we "landed" into the next key, although by 1:30 it's pretty clear that we've modulated into somewhere new and by 1:45 we've made a collective decision to go back to G minor. It seems like in this particular case, we didn't feel too comfortable in the new key!