posted on Jul, 24 2009 @ 08:35 PM
Most of my musical life has involved improvisation to some extent, from the time I tried to play guitar solos up to being involved in a seven-piece
band that did nothing else.
Some people may find my observations relevant.
The most fun I've ever had was in my improvising band. It was a seven-piece: guitar (me), bass, drums, alto sax, trumpet, percussion
(including vibes and marimba) plus a DJ who would often sample what we'd done and mix it back in.
We played weekly for about a year and a half maybe 2 years before being ready to gig.
In that situation, I have to say that the most important thing for me was the act, and the art, of listening. If you listen carefully enough
to what is going on around you, you'll hear what to play. Of course being able to do that involves knowing that you'll be able to play what you
hear when you hear it... that's not an easy skill to acquire.
When we did start gigging, we'd find we'd do two 45-minute sets or thereabouts, each of which would divide into several distinct sections with
themes and textures specific to each. We became adept at recognising a tune when someone played it, and immediately reacting to support, harmonise,
and eventually deconstruct the tune.
Despite being told specifically beforehand that everything they'd hear would be completely improvised, people would often come up afterwards and say,
"I know that's what you said, but some of those tunes were written beforehand, weren't they?"
Also, after a while, the way we managed changes became much more spontaneous. You'd somehow feel that a change was required, and often without even
a nod, people would suddenly change direction all together, like a flock of birds or school of fish.
The styles that we improvised within reflected the composition of the group. We all liked jazz and hip-hop, so there was a base there: but suddenly
we'd find ourselves playing a simple folk tune, or rocking out, or just having fun making noises. The percussion player was classically trained and
did a lot of avant-garde classical stuff, so sometimes there'd be a nod to what some have termed the "tinkly-bonk" school of music. Once at a gig,
I went to the percussion box and got two swanee whistles out and played them both simultaneously, playing more to rhythm and gesture than to actual
tuning. It went down really well and I absolutely loved it.
Sometimes I wouldn't play at all. Sometimes I'd give in to the pressure of feeling I ought to be playing something, and would join in only to
completely ruin something that was getting along fine without me. A mistake seldom repeated. (Wish I could say, never repeated, but, you know, I'm
not that bright.)
One aspect of improvisation that's not often looked at is the art of comping. I'd have to say that I found comping someone easily as enjoyable as
soloing myself, and in that band I had a lot of room to do it as apart from the vibes I was the only chordal instrument (although that does something
of an injustice to the bassist who was and is pretty astonishing). The trumpet player and I both loved the Miles Davis comeback band of the 80s and
occasionally we'd succumb to the temptation to dive into that kind of sound. The alto player was a huge Ornette fan and we'd spend quite a lot of
time in "chromatic free space" aka (to Iain M. Banks fans) as the Land of Infinite Fun.*
When I comp, I just listen really hard to what the soloist is doing and try to anticipate the phrasing, putting chords in in places that fit with the
line being played. I'd like to express it better than that, but I can;t. I will reiterate that the key is listening. Often when musicians
play together they're really only thinking about themselves and how they sound, which renders them insensitive to the needs of their fellow
musicians and of the music itself.
I also have to say that one gig is worth a thousand hours of rehearsal.
And no, I'm not going to post any links, mostly because I like being anonymous here, but also because most of the best stuff we played simply
vanished into the air. We were a bit lax about getting stuff recorded and there were people (including myself) who left and came back... if we'd
managed to just keep going it would have been consistently amazing, but sadly the usual personal and musical indifferences broke through and the band
is no more. Although I did have a jam with the bassist and drummer the other day. The bassist in particular is really hot and is getting a lot of
good work - but the relationship we have still holds. In a break he said to me, "man, that time we just both changed key together, it was amazing!"
and I just thought, "how soon they forget". Changing key or even rhythmic feel together was just something that started to happen after we'd been
together for a while and I never forgot how good it felt or how important it was.
So I'd have to say that for that kind of endeavour, there are some good rules of thumb. First, know your instrument the best you can. Second, just
listen to where the music is going. Very often people who improvise speak of the music seeming to come from somewhere outside them and I know
what they mean. Third, try to let go of demands that people play in a specific way. It's better to let everyone find their own space and then
expand from there. Fourth, make sure that the people around you have a fairly low threshold of boredom. That way you won't be stuck on one chord or
groove forever. Fifth, on the other hand, be aware of the power of repetition. It gives structure to what can otherwise be an amorphous mess. And
there's nothing like repeating a tune you've just played to make people think it was written beforehand. Sixth (this really works in a larger
ensemble), anyone can stop playing at any time. There's nothing like having the drummer stop for no apparent reason to sort out a band's
sense of time. Plus, it's just basic dynamics. You don't want everyone playing all the time, there's no light and shade.
On the subject of listening... there's a great book by Lynne McTaggart called The Field in which she talks about the random number generators
used in the Consciousness Research Project. It turns out that if people start paying attention to something, RNGs start organising their output, in
other words, it's not random any more. This is weird, but there's plenty of experimental evidence to support this contention.
Anyway, some people took an RNG to the Bayreuth festival and the results were amazing. The device's output was consistently at its least random
at those points in the opera where quiet music plus intense drama means you could almost literally hear a pin drop.
It would have been cool to put one of the RNGs in our rehearsal room and compare the output with a recording of what the band was doing. I suspect
there would have been correlation points between the RNG output and those transition points I mentioned earlier - that's when you're listening
hardest, and actually trying to listen into the future.
I also think that Rupert Sheldrake's theory of the Extended mind is hugely useful in looking at this issue, and is rather more relevant than a lot of
the scientific efforts, such as they are, to look at this issue.
*And no, none of us would claim to understand the theory of harmolodics, much less apply it. In fact, when you really just play, theory goes out the
[edit on 24-7-2009 by rich23]