Sunday, March 31, 2013

Free Improvisation in the Chapel

The Demolition Duo gave a performance-lecture at Reed College last Friday, March 29th. Special thanks goes to Professor David Schiff for for making it possible. Ken and I not only enjoyed the musical discussions, but performing in the Reed chapel was an acoustic treat! The sound on the stage was crisp despite a two second or more delay in the hall. It was an inspiring space to perform in. 

The students, largely Professor Schiff’s composition students, asked some really great questions about form, structure, interactivity, and instrumental techniques in improvised music. Their compositional interests ran the spectrum from Stravinsky to Zappa. Ken and I decided to open up with one free improvisation, and then play a written piece of each of hours to illustrate different concepts of pulse. Ken's work, "A Swarm of Yellow," which features a melody derived from set theory, is written in 4/4 and propels the soloist into an intervallic, propulsive, solo where the beat may be divided in any number of divisions. My piece, " Marty Says..." (dedicated to Marty Ehrlich), is more rubato and a pulse may be implied relative to how the melody is performed. One memorable discussion  involved how the music a group is improvising actually guides each individual musician (and in turn the group) deeper into the improvisatory "cave." Ken and I also supplied an outline of free improvisation concepts, plus a reference list of some of our favorite writings on improvisation. Here's our handout:

                       RACC Demolition Duo Project, 2013

Demolition Duo: John C. Savage, Ph.D.—flutes, alto sax, Ken Ollis, M.M.—drum set

Let the Music Guide You: Thoughts on Playing Improvised Music
Let the music guide you. It will tell you what to play.  Follow its instructions decisively and confidently. Indecision and lack of confidence will destroy the music.  Each time you sit down to play, forget everything that you think should be, or will be, because if you are truly inside the music, none of those things will likely happen. Surprise, for the audience and the performer, is a crucial ingredient to the best free improvisation.

Technique is the means to an end: it is information. Information is a tool. Technique is not art: it is at the service of art. Many times the music will guide you to new techniques you have never used before.

Develop your instrumental technique vocabulary:

Listen to everything!

Possess a broad knowledge of musical idioms including jazz styles, non-Western Music styles, “extended” instrumental techniques, pop music, avant-garde composers, electronic music, country, blues, etc.

Perform in groups that challenge your assumptions of how your instrument “fits” in. For example, play flute in a country-blues act, baritone saxophone in a punk band, perform lute pieces on electric guitar.

Practice and perform (and compose) with what are commonly referred to as “extended techniques.”

Think of orchestration:

You are the Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov of improvised orchestration.

            What are the traditional roles of your instrument?

In what ways can you work in opposition to those roles, including the use of “extended” techniques? How is this influenced by the instrument(s) you are playing with?

Think about and explore the following postures of interaction (from Joe Morris, “Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music,” 2012) while practicing, listening to free music, or when you are otherwise away from your instrument.  When you are playing a gig or a serious rehearsal, only use these as tools when you are stuck and don’t know what to play.

 Postures of Interaction:
            Solo- One playing by oneself, with accompaniment, or in parallel solo with another soloist.

Unison- Players playing the same notes, same density, same rhythm, or somehow conceptually similar.

Compliment- Playing in support of a soloist, or soloists, using appropriate dynamics, texture, etc.

Juxtaposition- Playing something entirely different than the ensemble: playing in opposition.

            Silence- Not playing with intent.

There are many ways to conceive of time, or pulse, in improvised music, the following are are some examples (Morris, 2012):


            Stating pulse in metric time (4/4, 3/4, etc.)

            Unaccented non-metric pulse (e.g. 1/4 note based pulse with no time signature)

            Rubato over a pulse in the rhythm section

            Collective rubato over an implied pulse

            No pulse

            Generalized concepts of speed (e.g. “fast”, “slow”)

            “Energy” playing:  fermata of indefinite duration.

Time/space/silence:  silence between notes or phrases as propulsion. (e.g. lowercase music) 

Perhaps free improvisation (or music overall) is analogous to writing in this quote by Geof Huth:

“Writing is a writhing of the spirit, a need to make rather than a need to make sense. Production over argument, heart over lung, a means of breathing forth so that a breath inward may at some point be possible. It allows for life.”

                                                                                                            --Geof Huth


Benson, B. E. (2003). The improvisation of musical dialogue: A phenomenology of music. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Bailey, D. (1992). Improvisation: Its nature and practice in music. New York: Da Capo Press. 

Butcher, J. (2008, March). Between thought and expression. Wire, 289, 28-33.

Cage, J. Silence (1961). Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Lewis, G. (2000). Teaching Improvised Music: An Ethnographic Memoir.  In J. Zorn (Ed.) Arcana: Musicians on Music.  (pp. 78-109) New York: Granary Books Inc.

Morris, J. (2012). Perpetual frontier: The Properties of Free Music. Stony Creek, CT: Riti Publishing.

Nachmanovitch, S. (1990) Free play: Improvisation in life and art. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher. 

Pressing, J. (2000). Improvisation: methods and models. In John A. Sloboda (Ed.) Generative processes in music (pp. 129-178). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Savage, J. (2010) A phenomenology of contemporary flute improvisation: Contextual explications of techniques, aesthetics, and performance practices. (Doctoral Dissertation, New York University).

Werner, K (1996). Effortless mastery: Liberating the master musician within. New Albany, IN: Jamey Aebersold Jazz Inc.

                This workshop was funded in part by the Regional Arts and Culture Council



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