Category Archives: Listening

What sense can I make of improvisation?

Time for another instalment on improvisation – I’m going to try to absorb different accounts of what improvisation is and who does it… and there are questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for.

To begin with, two complaints against improvisation:

First from C.P.E. Bach, commenting sarcastically, in the preface to his Sonatas with Varied Repeats (1760). He goes on:

“It is indispensable, nowadays to alter repeats. One expects it of everybody.  A friend of mine goes to endless trouble to play a piece as it is written, flawlessly and in accordance with the rules of good performance; how can one not applaud him? Another, often pressed by necessity, makes up by his audacity in alteration for the lack of expression he shows in the performance of the written notes; the public nevertheless extols him above the former.”

He’s complaining about the prevalence of improvising, particularly the convention that on the second time through a melody, the performer would add variations;in fact some of them would start before they had finished the first time through – think of how a jazz player states the theme of a ballad for instance. Consequently Bach began composing the varied repeats himself, and also provided variations or embellishments (Auszierungen) for existing works. This makes us aware of the degree to which improvisation was the modus operandi of his day, and his complaint is the beginnings of a move away from it.

Now Scott Joplin, in a preface to a collection of his piano ragtime compositions:

“We wish to say here that the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this, and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.”

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Improvisation Workshops in Primary Schools

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation.  I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts.  Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation.  It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.

The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative.  This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example.  The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways.  16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved.  I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation.  In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!

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Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir [1] and Dr Richard Worth [2] I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development. Continue reading Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

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A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’

In response to Zack’s previous post, ‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick: Anyone can do it…’ I’ve decided that I’m going to come clean, and do an autoethnographic analysis of my OWN soloing strategies; this means coming clean and I admitting to what I was really doing in the course of a so-called improvised solo for a paying session.  Also, I just noticed that in Gareth Dylan Smith’s recent post he also used the autoethnographic tag, and I think it’s the best way to look at a musical situation from the viewpoint of the main protagonist-ME. No one else is better qualified to say what is really going on here…. Continue reading A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’

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Make ’em Clap to This: Tricks of rhythmic displacement as found in Stravinsky and Led Zeppelin

(NB The following is related to this post – you might want to have a look if you are interested in the subject of rhythmic ‘tricks’)

Writing in the early 1930’s, composer/critic Constant Lambert takes great delight in recounting the following incident at a Ballet Russes performance:

“Diaghilev included as a symphonic interlude Mozart’s Musical joke……no one saw the joke except Diaghilev himself. His entourage took the piece with perfect gravity as an example of classicism to be admired and imitated.”

(Lambert, p98)

I’m sure he exaggerates – he was, after all, decrying Stravinsky’s brand of neoclassicism (Lambert was more an admirer of the “barbarism” of The Rite of Spring and Les Noces, and caricatures Stravinsky’s move to neo-classicism as a “spectacular sinner” having a “spectacular conversion.”

“….they (the audience) craved more sensation- very well they should have it. Cold water and sermon for them…Stravinsky in his latest works has achieved a final triumph of fashion….a fashion for boredom”

(Lambert, p88)

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Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn

Let me start this with an excerpt of the guitar work Melvin (Wah Wah Watson) Raglin, on Herbie Hancock’s Hang Up Your Hang Ups from the 1975 album, Manchild.
Continue reading Metric Puns and Rhythmic Tricks: From Hancock to Haydn

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Top 5 Records:

OK, if you are reading any of the posts on this site you are probably a bit of a music geek (compliment, not pejorative)!  So, be honest – is there anyone who doesn’t (at least secretly) enjoy the ‘Top 5 Records’ game?  If you’re not quite sure what I am referring to then have a quick look at this clip from the film ‘High Fidelity’ from 2000 in which a group of record store employees indulge in a round of the game (as they do throughout the film).  Not only do they  demonstrate how the game works but they also show, and caricature, a lot of the other interesting attitudes that surround the choices that people make when asked to list their top 5 records.
Continue reading Top 5 Records:

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The Digital Quartet: Working with a Quartet of Young Disabled Musicians

This post will be used to show a short documentary that was made to outline an interesting project that I was involved with earlier this year.  The project involved working with and mentoring a quartet of disabled musicians in the composition, production and dissemination of a 3-part piece of music, entitled ‘The Deep‘.

The documentary includes footage from the studio session and commentary from myself and other members of the team.

This project was funded by Creative Scotland’s via CP Productions and was a collaboration with Drake Music Scotland

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Conflict and Coherence: Thinking About Idiomatic Interplay in Music

This March, I attended the International Festival of Innovation at Leeds College of Music . The conference brought together several strands of research and practice, including Popular Music, Classical Music, Leeds International Jazz Education Conference, and the International Festival of Innovation in Music Production and Composition.  In previous years, these strands have been run as separate conferences, and I have been involved with the Leeds International Jazz Education Conference for several years. To my mind, bringing together these events was an inspired move: scholars and practitioners from each field were able to network and share ideas, and delegates frequently found there was more in common between the disciplines than they had previously thought.  Dr Zack Moir (@zackmoir) and I got talking at a coffee break, and ended up having an impassioned discussion about new methods of teaching music. We agreed that practical musicianship can be informed by theoretical and historical understandings, and vice versa.

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Learning to Improvise: Communicative Improvisation Workshop

Earlier this year, I was asked to run a workshop on ‘Communicative Improvisation’ for the University of Edinburgh as part of their ‘Innovative Learning Week‘.  I have led many workshops on improvisation in the past, some focussed specifically on jazz, some on pop/rock, some on free-improv or improvisation for dance, for example, but never on ‘communicative improvisation’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of exactly what this meant or how I would approach it. Also, when I agreed to do it, the only information about the participants was that they could could be from anywhere in the whole university (not specifically for music students) and that they may not even have any previous practical musical experience.  As it turned out, the group comprised a range of people who had never played an instrument before , people who were professional musicians and everything in between.

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