Tag Archives: Improvisation

‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

Introduction:

I have Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes.  Trying to manage this disease feels like a full time occupation, and it can be exceptionally difficult to try to keep my blood sugar levels stable enough to function properly sometimes.  Simple things like making sure insulin dosage matches my food intake, how much to reduce insulin to compensate for the physical exertion of exercise or even the mental exertion of writing/lecturing etc., can become difficult calculations and when they go wrong, can have some significant effects.  Too much insulin and I get hypoglycemic symptoms which can be anything from mild dizziness and confusion, to loss of consciousness and even seizures.  Too little insulin and blood sugars rise, causing lethargy, unquenchable thirst (coupled with the constant need to run to the toilet), splitting headaches, and ultimately damage to internal organs and other parts of the body.  I feel constantly as if I am performing a tightrope act and that any false steps have life-threatening consequences. All in all, it is not a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time.  I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky that my condition is relatively easy to treat.  I am not complaining – just setting the scene for the musical information that follows.

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Remembering B.B. King

News of legendary entertainer B.B. King’s death came as a jolt. The monumentality of his contribution to popular music created the impression that somehow he would always be around, striding onto someone else’s record to make you wonder why they were there, superstars or not. His ability to spark collaborations with unlikely partners – U2, The Crusaders, the GRP Big Band, Cyndi Lauper – meant that in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many genres you could approach without coming across him. This could seem surprising until you considered that all this music – stadium rock, smooth funk or state-of-the-art big band – all traced roots to the wellspring of Delta blues that formed B.B. King.

He tends to be labelled as a widely influential blues guitarist, but his singing was at least as striking as what came from his fretboard, and was what brought him to attention first. I saw King perform twice during his lifetime of incessant touring, and had never seen such blatant showmanship before: the band stoking the blues for a good 20 minutes before the great man walked on stage to top it all, and relentless encores infused with the same chutzpah as his advice for the queen of England (sic) when she corners him in the street during ‘You’d Better Not Look Down’. What I remember most from the live shows is that his voice and guitar seemed interchangeable. The voice rang out like an electric guitar, and Lucille (the guitar) sang back in the solos, a percussive approach and portamento wails perfectly recreating the vocal delivery. King himself acknowledged this link, stating that, ideally, ‘you wouldn’t know when Lucille stopped and my voice began’1. This gave his guitar playing the emphatic restraint so often lacking in overenthusiastic blues players since.

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‘Teaching’ Music

What does ‘teaching music’ mean, anyway?

Admittedly, this is (in part) a bit of a flippant question – in some ways we all know what is meant when someone says that they are ‘teaching music’ or that they work as a ‘music teacher’.  However, this question has recently become more of a serious concern of mine and I have to confess to being increasingly unsure of how to answer it.   Given that I spend the vast majority of my working life teaching music in some form, it might be expected that me asking the question ‘what does teaching music mean?’ is alarming.  Actually, I can’t help but feel that this is a natural (and important) question to ask and I worry that any singular definition offered in answer to such a question may be problematic.

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Why I Love ‘A Love Supreme’

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic album ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane.  The album is a four-part ‘suite’ (with a running-time of only 33 minutes) that is frequently listed as one of the most important or influential albums in the history of jazz.  The album was written as an expression of Coltrane’s gratitude to God and is widely understood to be a reflection of his spiritual quest, arising from his personal struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.  It comprises 4 thematically-linked tracks: (1) Acknowledgement, (2) Resolution, (3) Pursuance, and (4) Psalm.

My admiration for this record has nothing to do with Coltrane’s faith or spirituality.  As an atheist, I have no religious connection to the music and I do not believe that such a connection is necessary in order to engage with the work.  I love the music and feel that it was (and continues to be) an eye-opener for me with regard to the approach to improvisation, the development of melodic ideas and the ensemble interaction.  So, here’s a short list of the musical reasons for my love of this incredible album.  There is very little in the way of analysis of the music and I do not intend to draw any conclusions – this post is simply me, as an admirer of the album, providing some insight into why I love it. Please feel free to comment below and add your own reasons to the list – I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this music.

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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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‘Just Like Clarence’

This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.

It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session:  ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately).  Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’.  I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation.  So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion.  I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’

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‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick. Anyone Can Do It…’

I was sitting with my daughter last week watching Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (Warner Brothers, 2005) and was struck by a particular passage of dialogue.  Just after the first of the bratty, selfish children (Augustus Gloop) gets eliminated from the tour of the chocolate factory, the Oompa-Loompas perform an elaborately choreographed song and dance routine which describes the events which led to this child’s early exit from the film.  Shortly after the song finishes, the following dialogue occurs:

Charlie: Mr. Wonka, why would Augustus’ name already be in the Oompa-Loompa song unless they—

Willy Wonka: Improvisation is a parlour trick. Anyone can do it. [turns to Violet] You! Little girl – say something. Anything!

Violet: Chewing gum.

Willy Wonka: Chewing gum is really gross. Chewing gum I hate the most. See? Exactly the same.

Mike: No, it isn’t.

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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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