Making new: an improvisation R&D
A few days ago, on the top floor at Rambert, a group of performers, listening through wireless headphones to scores made of pre-recorded directions and other audio information, improvised the beginnings of a new piece. It was a piece I’d imagined and tussled with the composition of, but the quietly fading light in the studio and the calm deep attention of the players- musicians and a dancer- brought its potential beautifully and atmospherically to life.
Musical improvisation is something I’ve practised pretty much throughout my musical career so far, both as a performer and as a composer, and it was my involvement in the Rambert Event two years ago which partly got me thinking about the potential for improvisation in the context of music and dance collaborations. The dancers in the Event were, like the musicians, excited to express ‘the moment’ rather than simply internalise anchor points. This seemed to speak a lot of the chemistry that can come with good improvisation- the happy accidents of synchronicity, and the openness to chance.
Musical improvisation could be defined as a music created without foreknowledge or planning, but it feels like much more than this. It can be like a kind of meditation and an accessing of a different part of the performing brain, can be raw and personal and fluid and free, can express a very rich kind of group-music-making responsibility. The idea of it can feel contradictory- some argue it amounts in fact to a fairly un-radical ‘playing-of-what-you-know’, while others point to the possibilities of adventuring with your instrument in unconventional ways, and seeing all sounds, all noise even, as potential music.
Western art music is actually quite unusual in its emphasis on notation. Globally and historically, most musics are not gathered and formalised in this way. For me, sometimes a music stand and a conventional score represent a kind of barrier- not only in a physical sense, but also in terms of what they permit of the performer. There is a great deal of interpretative room in classical playing, the detail of which can be highly sophisticated and can represent a disciplined and profound relationship with musical material. But sometimes the conventional score can risk becoming dictatorial. The grist for the musical mill comes from within a very specific set of parameters, the sense of performance ‘rights and wrongs’ looms large, and the ways in which performers can exert their creative agency is closely defined.
I’ve asked myself a lot, when in the audience at improv gigs, or when improvising myself, what makes a good improvisation? What makes improvisers make certain choices- when to introduce an idea, when to move on, when to stop, how to find the right balance between technique and freedom from technique, and so on? To a certain extent, I think it’s about the quality of awareness of the player, how prepared they are to be true, and right there at that moment, and able to contend with all the vulnerability that this head space amounts to. It’s great as an audience member when you feel like you are witnessing something somehow authentic to that person and that moment. It’s this kind of honesty and courage that makes me really feel something as I’m listening. An improviser friend recently told me that for an improvisation to be any good, it needs to contain the risk of being total rubbish. That is, the openness that comes with stepping into the creative unknown, the entertaining of the risk of ‘failure’, contains within it the integrity of attention and commitment that makes good improvising even at all possible.
In the making of my alternative ‘audio scores’, I wanted to explore these kinds of realities- how to facilitate improvisation within a composition, how to build a musical vocabulary that didn’t rely on conventional notation, and so on. I also wanted to build upon a compositional method I’d been using over the past year or two. This method involved me writing and recording a primary piece of music, then making a series of ‘blind’ improvisations to it- each one played only to the primary track and without hearing the other improvisations. After I’d done, say, five improvisations, I’d listen back to all of them together, but- importantly- without listening to the primary track underneath. Imagining this process how a dancer might, it would be akin to improvising with a prop- say, a piece of furniture- then re-creating the improvisation a second time after taking the piece of furniture away. Just as the subsequent movements of this dance improvisation might suggest somehow the outlines and shapes of the piece of furniture and the dancer’s relationship to it, the series of musical improvisations often suggested the harmonies and feel of the original primary track. More than this though, there would tend to be no sharp edges, it would feel mellifluous and suggestive. The spirit of improvisation seemed to give it a sense of ‘human-ness’, you could sense that it had been played in the moment with only the ears to direct it.
I felt audio scores might also help me play with the potential of the visual in performance. It had often been my experience that the musical element of theatrical or dance pieces was either recorded or, if there were musicians at all, they were hidden off-stage. Though not necessarily a problem, it could make music feel like an add-on or taken for granted, rather than integrated as a creative performance opportunity. There is something about the visibly live performance of music which intrigues and inspires an audience. As Brian Eno has said, the spectators “sense the tension”. This can be a very compelling experience- particularly when that music is improvised and is creating a unique and raw kind of on-stage chemistry of the moment. I wanted to explore making a piece where there was parity between all the performers, whether musicians or dancers, where all the performers would have the same costumes, would occupy the same space, would perform material generated using equivalent processes, would potentially interact. I wrote movement directions into my audio scores which imagined not only dancers moving around the space but the musicians too.
And… I had no idea how or whether any of this would work! It was a process which made a relatively heavy tech foot-print and this was fairly stressful to manage logistically, let alone compose around. I began to worry I was thinking more about process and technology than music, and I felt a million miles from my comfort zone. But something made me stay with it. And following my days of R&D in Rambert’s top-floor studio and the wonderful musicality, commitment and playfulness of those I was working with, I’m really glad I did. We saw the start of something new, and plan to develop it further.
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