Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA - Final Thoughts, , Part 4 of 4

One More Look Back

As a musician who loves to improvise and be thrown off the deep end of things, MOFO was the perfect environment for me. I was really able to both stretch, and be stretched out by the other musicians I performed with. 

Having been an improvising musician for many years, I must admit to having my licks/riffs/ideas that I do use over and over (who doesn't?), so in one sense what I do is not 100% improvised. But, and this is important, even when I play something familiar, the context is always different. Things like the room, the audience, the instruments used, and even my particular mood at the time are always changing. 

A good example are my 2 performances in the Barrel Room, on Friday morning and Saturday morning. While there were similarities, each performance was quite different. One factor was that the energy of the 2 audiences was very different. Another factor was the 1st Barrel Room performance was my very 1st performance at the fest, so I didn't know what to expect as far as the sound and reaction of my borrowed gear, the sound of the room, and the reaction of the audience. I also had an overall sense of nervousness when I started. The 2nd performance in the Barrel Room was my 3rd overall, so by then I had a better feeling about everything.

Thinking While Performing

As I've mentioned numerous times, I'm always listening to what's going on when I'm playing. This feedback helps me make choices. And choices are what improvising is all about. The things I am thinking are:

  • Instrument choices: which ones and what one/s to play next.
  • Mallet choices: hard or soft? Rubber, cord/yarn wound, wood, metal, big or small?
  • Rhythm choices.
  • Playing rhythm vs ambient atmospheres.
  • Volume & texture choices: loud/soft, harsh/smooth, melodic/noise, short/long, rhythmic/arrhythmic, or combinations of these and everything in between.
  • How are the audience and/or other musicians reacting to what I do?
  • In response to those reactions, do I play it safe, or do I go further out on the edge of things?
  • What is the room telling me? 
  • Can I play with the reverb/echo of the room?
  • How is everything different than the last performance?

And all of this is happening in real time as I'm playing. There's no stopping to think it over and then making a decision.

A good example of this is the photo above. I call this set up of small Gongs my floor Gamelan. I usually play it with the medium blue rubber mallets you can see on the left. But in some rooms, the blue mallets are too harsh/brittle sounding, so I'll use the softer red rubber mallets. And at other times, I'll use a soft, cord wound mallet because the rubber ones are too overpowering. So I have to listen to the room's acoustics, and how my instruments sound in there, then make a mallet choice before I start playing. 

There are even times I won't use a certain instrument, because I know it won't work right in the room, or I tried it and it didn't sound good, so I put it down and moved on to a different instrument. So another important thing is realizing when something isn't working and then abandoning that gracefully for something else.

The Continuing Art of Trust

The biggest thing of all is trust. Trusting myself to play the right thing. “What if I do something that doesn't work?” It happens, but you just move on to the next thing. And you keep moving, changing, evolving what you are playing.

There's also trusting my audience to go along with what I'm doing. A good example of this is the use of silence. I think a lot of drummers are afraid of silence because the way we are taught is to always be playing, always making a sound. This is especially true of drum set players. On set, we seem to be always playing a rhythm, rarely stopping. Even when we do stop, some other band members may be playing, which keeps things filled up. 

Now when playing solo, when you stop, everything stops, and there is this little bit of fear in the back of your mind that the audience will get restless, or won't like it. But you have to trust that the silence is just as important as the sound, and in fact, will make the sounds you play stand out even more. But this takes a lot of time to nurture and develop.

The End is Only the Beginning…

So here we are, the final post about my experience at MOFO. I hope you've found it interesting, helpful, and even inspiring to your own music & improvising. Thanks for reading.

I'd also like to thank everyone at MOFO—Brian, Shelley, Stacey, and the whole crew—for making this an exceptional musical experience. And the other musicians I shared a stage with and who I was fortunate enough to see perform. I'd also like to thank Paiste/Yamaha Australia and Mike Balter Mallets for help with the gear. A very special thanks to the US Consulate in Melbourne, Australia for their generous support. And finally, my sincere thanks to all the wonderful people who listened to my music. 

~ MB

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA, Part 3 of 4

Sunday, January 17 

Today is all about the duo. I was scheduled to play twice today, at 3pm with trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and at 5:15 possibly with another artist from the fest. But as things went, on Saturday, I ran into Taiko drummer Yyan Ng in the green room. He was excited to meet and we had a great time chatting. He was scheduled to play a short performance Sunday morning and asked if I'd be interested in playing with him. Of course I said, “Yes.” So a call was put out to Shelley to see if we could do it. It was heartily approved and we both went off to our Saturday performances excited about the duo performance tomorrow.

Sunday's schedule showing the amazing variety of performances going on. Not shown 
are some of the pop up performances and changes, like the Taiko/Gong duo.

Yyan and I talked a little, but not really about what we would do. We talked more about who we were and what our backgrounds were. We had both started out as drum set players, before expanding into our specialties, so we had a common ground. Sunday's performance was moved into the large Nolan Gallery. This worked out well for me, as all 3 performances were now in there, so I wouldn't have to move any gear. Besides, the Nolan Gallery was a great place to perform in. At 501 square meters, and 3 stories high, it's the largest open space inside the museum. Having heard other concerts in there, I knew the sound would be amazing.

The massive Nolan Gallery

While the Nolan Gallery is massive, the sound is rather controlled. So instead of sounding like a sports arena, it has a nice ambiance to it. The irregular shaped concrete ceiling and the open balcony contribute to keeping reflections down. It sounds big and airy, not big and boomy. So even with massed percussion playing in there, it's not cacaphony. 

Yyan and I started with a small Gong duet and then moved on to larger drums and Gongs. In listening to Yyan, I understood what he was doing and found it easy to flow with him. We were able to lock in rhythmically and it was a fantastic performance. At times I looked for contrast, like playing hand held Chinese cymbals with a swirling motion while he pounded out rhythms on his giant Odaiko drum. Then, for the finale, I joined in playing my horizontal bass drum as we worked through a rhythmic tug-of-war, pushing and prodding each other. It was exhilarating to say the least and left me exhausted at the finish.

Heavy rhythms (photo from

After our intense performance I was fortunate to have a few hours to relax, find some food, check out some other music, and be ready for round 2.

At 3pm I did it all over again, this time with the fantastic Melbourne trumpeter, Scott Tinkler. We had met at the hotel and around the festival a few times, but didn't plan anything out. My thought was, “Let's see what happens.” I had watched some of his YouTube videos, so I had an idea of where he was at. But I must admit, live was another thing than the videos. Scott pushed things in a completely different direction than Yyan. I've never played with a more powerful trumpet player. Just the sheer amount of sound he could produce blew me away. And he kept going. I often felt like I was in a marathon, trying to keep up to him. 

Because he played such beautiful and melodic notes, I used 2 approaches: 1 was to play against him with short, percussive rhythms. I played on the floor Gongs and the bass drum, looking to push and cajole what he was playing. The 2nd way was to use the big Gongs as a sort of lush soundscape behind him. The idea was to provide a backdrop for him to hang his notes on. And all the while he kept on playing with such a big, beautiful sound. It was fantastic!

(Photo from ABC Hobart)

(photo from

This was my 7th performance in 3 days. Afterwards I could feel it. I was tired. It takes a lot of both physical and mental energy to improvise that much, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. The whole fest had been a non-stop 4 days already for me. I wasn't sure what to expect next.

Since my last performance was near the end of the day and the fest, many of the other artists were already gone or leaving. I thought I would be playing solo. But as luck would have it, I ran into Brian Ritchie out on the grounds again. He said, “How would you like to play with the best sax player in Tasmainia? He's back in town. Let me call him.” How could I say, “No”? So 10 minutes before the last concert began, I met Danny Healy. Dan came in with a few cases. We shook hands, said “Hello,” and that was it. When he was ready, we started to play. Now Dan was another completely different experience. 

Me with Dan Healy in the shadows (taken from video I shot)

The great thing about Dan was that he played very relaxed, very mellow, and very melodic. I needed something that wasn't as high energy as the previous 2 sessions. He had a big, lush sound on his tenor sax. I tried to be melodic in my thinking and play along with him. I really tried to be supportive and create a nice background for him to play over. Part of this was just from being completely spent. I enjoyed the different pace. Afterwards, a woman came up to us and asked, “How long have you 2 been working together?” She was completely surprised when we said that we had just met. I knew it had been a great performance then.

So I had 3 concerts, each one completely different, and each one calling for a different approach and a different energy. And each was was a totally improvised, with no forethought or planning between the musicians. I know some people look at a performance like this and think that it must be easy, because you just go up and play whatever you want. But it's not at all like that. There's a lot of thought, all based on years of experience, put into every note that is played. I never just play. I worked hard at sculpting sound into a usable force, especially one that will hopefully communicate with the listener.

So there you have it. 8 performances in 3 days. Each one different from the other (even the 2 Barrel Room sessions were different, because the audiences brought different energy). A lot of energy was spent. A lot of music was made. And judging by the responses from people I talked to throughout the fest, and even after, the music was well received.

This was the 9th report on MONA FOMA 2016. I'll do one more to wrap things up, with specifics on my playing/ideas and what runs through my head while I'm performing. Thanks for reading!

~ MB

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA, Part 2 of 4

Saturday, January 17, 2016

2 performances scheduled for today (Saturday, January 16, 2016), with a 3rd hastily thrown in. This always makes things even more interesting.

The Barrel Room Redux

Starting the day off with a 2nd performance in the Barrel Room. The advantage here is knowing how the room sounds. I played very similar to yesterday's performance: lot's of long tones to fill the space, and playing with the beats again. Another very appreciative audience. I could play in here all the time.

The Main Stage

As sometimes happens at these large festivals, someone canceled, leaving a hole to fill in the scheduling. I had been asked to fill in for something yesterday, but my playing back at the pier in town made it impossible. Today I was walking around the grounds when I came upon the festival's curator, Brian Ritchie, who asked me, “Someone canceled. Do you want to play on the main stage with me and a bass player?” “Sure,” was my reply. I then made my way to where my gear was stored to inform them of the performance and make sure things got sent over to the main stage. 

Sam, Peter, and Brian preparing for the gig

The main stage is an outdoor stage at the back of the museum. This is where the night before the fests headliners, The Flaming Lips, had played. So it's a standard, large concert stage. As things turned out, I played in a quartet, with Brian on Shakuhachi, Peter Woods on trumpet, Sam Pankurst on double bass, and myself on percussion. As Peter and Sam are part of the Australian Art Orchetra, we went on under the guise of The Australian Art Orchestra Quartet. The music was a sort of free jazz blowout, featuring tunes by John Coltrane, Albert & Donald Ayler, and Brian. 

 The set up: variation on a theme with yet another bass drum

Right away, a big difference was being outdoors and having all my gear miked up. An interesting part of that was as the stage faced the back of the museum, there was an interesting slapback echo off of the building. I tried to use this to my advantage, especially when playing short, percussive sounds, like a wood block or small, muted Gongs, setting up  rhythm patterns using the echo. Also, if I played fast patterns, I could even get a bit of a layering effect of the sounds. So again, it was all about listening.

One problem I had was that I lacked any sort of decent monitors, it was sometimes difficult to hear the others from my vantage point, especially if I played loudly. So I had to watch my volume. It helped that when I faced the others, I could watch what they were doing (I could even read off the charts the bass was using). But when I played the large Gongs, I had my back to everyone, so listening and keeping my volume down was critical.

Not having a drum kit, or even a ride cymbal, I had to find different ways to move the music ahead. I tried to be more rhythmical, using the bass drum and shorter sounds to play more patterned rhythms. Since I was playing the part of the drummer, I especially followed the bass. A lot of the music was atmospheric in nature, so there were plenty of times where I used the large Gongs to create a big wash of sound behind everything. 

I found myself wishing I had my own gear from back home, especially my bass drum, because there were sounds and ideas I wanted to play, but couldn't. But the challenge of playing unfamiliar music, with unfamiliar musicians and gear, is good to do. It keeps you honest, and doesn't allow you to just fall back on your old licks and ideas. It keeps you at the top of your game. All in all, the set went down well and I had a great time.

Back In The Museum

For my 3rd performance of the day, I found myself back deep inside MONA. This was a Pop Up performance, one of the sort of unscheduled performances throughout the museum. When I was scouting the place out the day before the fest, one of the things Shelley, the executive director, told me to do, was to pick out a place I wanted to play. So I wondered around and looked for something unusual and different from where everything else was scheduled. 

One of the things about the museum is that there are no tags or signs on any of the artwork, so to know what things are, you need to use the free iPod and headphones, and do a self tour. There you can get names and descriptions of all the works. While I had the iPod, I just sort of wandered around taking pictures of the places that interested me, so I didn't always get the names of them. 

Penguins with wooden trees…

There were a lot of great spots and great artworks to be by, by the place that most interested me was a series of Penguins with wooden trees. I was completely intrigued by how it looked, especially because you could view it from many different angles, including up above. Thus the artwork changed depending upon your viewing point. My 1st inclination was how fantastic it would be to set up inside the trees in a sort of circular set up. My idea was art within art. I passed my request on, showing Shelley a photo and describing my idea, all the while realizing that the chance of it happening was probably slim. But if you don't ask, you never know.

Sadly, while a great idea, it was a no go. So the next best thing was to set up next to it. This still had the advantage of being viewed from multiple levels. My gear ended up set between the wooden trees and a video installation. This made for an interesting situation, as the video screens offered a changing light pattern, while the coinciding audio made for additional sound during my performance. Rather than a distraction, I looked at that as something to work with, a sort of John Cage moment.

View from the balcony

This was a rather informal setting, where the audience sat on the floor, or stood around that level or the balcony. So while I couldn't go in the display, I took advantage of walking around it, and through the people, carrying various Gongs and percussion. This allowed me to interact more with the audience, and also play around with the varying acoustics.

Variation on a set up #5

Gongs & Trees

Video reflections

It's an interesting situation to play in, as people are coming and going, milling about the different art works. You have to be able to play with all these different distractions going on. It's makes for an interesting performance.

Next, 3 duos.

~ MB

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA, Part 1 of 4

Today I want to take an in depth look at my recent experience at the MONA FOMA festival in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, where I was the artist in residence. There is a 6-part series about my day to day exploits on my other blog, The Way of the Gong™. I wasn't sure where to post that, there or here, but the other blog won out for inconsequential reasons. You might want to check that series out first before you continue here. The MOFO blogs.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Now back to the fest: In the course of 3 days (Fri-Sun), I performed 8 times, all of these performances were improvised to a great extent. The festival was mostly held at a fantastic museum, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), with some performances at various venues back in Hobart proper. I played at 5 different venues, each with its own acoustics, which affected how I played. So let's look at my performances based on the rooms I played in.

The Barrel Room
 A most interesting venue.

When I first saw my schedule for the fest, I thought The Barrel Room was just a name for a room. I was able go to the museum the day before the fest to scout it out, and little did I know, it was an actual room filled with large barrels of aging wine! The museum is surrounded by vinyards and they make and sell their own house wines. They also make and sell a house beer. How hip is that?

My first impression of the room is that it was very much a concrete bunker. The room was a large, rectangular shape, with all flat concrete surfaces. As you can see in the photos, it is lined with racks filled with very large, round wine barrels. Initially I was worried about the sound being very much an echo chamber. Fortunately, the wood of the barrels soaked up a lot of sound, and their round shape acted like studio baffles, in that it minimized the straight reflecting surfaces. The result was a rather crisp, slightly resonant sound. The climate controlled room was also very cold and damp, with mist sprayers, which they turned off for the performances.

My set up, L-R, back row: 36" Iron Gamelan, 32" Symphonic (top), 30" Planet Earth Platonic (bottom), 32" Planet Saturn (top),
24" Moon Synodic (bottom). Front: 24" Sound Creation #3 Moon and 24" Symphonic.

To avoid dragging heavy and expensive gear halfway across the globe, I only brought a suitcase of small Gongs, bells, woodblock, shakers, and a kalimba, plus all my mallets. Gongs were provided for me by Paiste and the festival's curator, Brian Ritchie, who has a nice collection. Other percussion (bass drum, China cymbals, etc,) was provided by the festival to my specs. For the 2 sessions here, which were to be more Gong Meditations, I used only the large Gongs and a few small percussion items.

So the interesting thing for me was to play unfamiliar Gongs that I had just met, in an unfamiliar room where I had only managed to hear part of the percussion set by Ensemble Offspring, who played before me. This is really where listening to things is most important. When I started playing, I was listening to the Gongs, both their sounds and how they responded to my playing, and also listening to how the room responded to the Gongs. My first priority was to not overplay the room, especially because the audience was within a few feet of my set up. So I listened, listened, and listened. The first 10 or 15 minutes I was feeling out the room and the sound, not to mention the Gongs themselves!

One of the first things I found was that the Gamelan Gong seemed to resonate at the frequency of the room. When I struck it, the deep bass note seemed to come from everywhere! It was astounding. I didn't have to hit it very hard either. It also had a nice series of beats that faded out after 6 or 7 notes. To a lesser extent, both of the 32" Gongs also resonated to the room. They were also very close in tuning to each other, but off enough that when I struck them together, or in an alternating rhythm, they created a very strong beat pattern the resonated deeply. The result was, that I could find a sticking rhythm that kept a nice steady series of beats, and created a fantastic ostinato pattern that resonated the whole room. I worked this, creating a nice trance-like affect that I could punctuate with other Gongs. This was truly an example of playing the room.

I did a lot of other things, using different mallets and techniques, as well as using some bells and other instruments, but it was the deep resonance of the 3 large Gongs that I found most exciting to play. This was the case of finding a perfect room for the music I was playing. I wish I could've recorded in there alone.

The Brooke Street Pier

 The corner stage at Brooke Street Pier
 Floor percussion in the hot sun
 Bass drum with Cup Chimes

This was the only off site performance I did. The Pier is where the museum ferry docks. It's a very long, modern building with large glass windows on all sides, and various vendor stalls inside. The stage was set up in the front corner, by the entrance, visible to the outside. The performances there were a sort of sampler of what was happening at the Museum 12 miles away.

After playing in the cool, damp Barrel Room, the Pier was another thing altogether. The afternoon sun came blazing through the glass, leaving me feeling like I was playing in an oven (it's mid-summer down there). Even though the large windows could be slid open, there was little breeze to come in and cool things off. So I sweated and fried in the sun. And the black wooden floor was hot. When I stepped off the rug and onto the wood floor in my stocking feet, it burned.

The other big difference I had to deal with is that it was a very noisy terminal, with people coming and going, making a lot of their own noise in the background. Even with the large plates of glass around me, the sound was rather dry. One listen to things told me just to play and make the best of it. Between the noise and the heat, I found it increasingly difficult to focus as my set went on.

My set up included a horizontal bass drum, all my small Gongs and floor percussion, and 4 large Gongs. Now as it often goes for big festivals that have to serve a large variety of musicians, I filled out my technical needs and we discussed over e-mail what sort of instruments the festival could provide for me to use. As a drummer/percussionist, unless you play in one of the biggest selling rock bands, you end up using borrowed and hired gear. It's economics. And since I traveled by myself (no entourage for me), the less I had to personally carry, the better.

In my own personal set up back home, I play a 10"x26" bass drum with a single-ply head, set up horizontally as a sound table. I like to put small Gongs, cymbals, bells, cup chimes, etc. on the head and use the drum as a resonator. I also like to play it with sticks/mallets/hands. So what was available for me to use was a 16"x22" rock bass drum with a pinstripe batter head (the front head was single-ply, but with a port hole in it, so not usable)—see the photo above. The drum was also heavily muffled: great for rock drum set use, not so great for what I wanted to do. 

What's an enthusiastic percussionist going to do? You make the best of it and play the drum, doing what you can with it. Besides, I love a challenge. So playing in the hot sun, on strange gear, in a noisy ferry terminal, was a challenge that I accepted. Overall, I played variations on some of my compositions, and improvised like crazy. The coolest part of all this is you really get to see how much you have your shit together. You also learn a lot of new things while experimenting and basically going crazy with your instruments. So in the midst of all this, I discovered some new sounds, some new ideas, and had a fantastic time doing what I love to do.

End of set, I'm soaked through my clothes and exhausted from the heat. I pack up and talk to a few people there. Some good comments and I feel like I did the best I could under the circumstances. The crew took my gear back to the museum for tomorrow's performances, and I walked the 3 blocks back to my hotel to take a very long, cool, shower. End of day 1, 2 more to go…

~ MB

Saturday, January 16, 2016

While I'm Away, I'm Still Here

Hey, while I'm off in Australia, performing at the MONA FOMA Festival in Hobart, I'm blogging about it on my other blog, The Way of the Gong. Check it out here everyday.

When I get back next week, I'll pick up with more of The Art Of Improvising.


~ MB

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Improvisation, Part 8 - Bettine/Brophy/Kern Trio

Part 8 of this series and once again I'm in a trio with Erin Brophy and Daniel Kern. This track take a different path. Erin play flute, with gives things a lighter texture. I start out playing 3 Paiste Bell Cymbals placed upside down on my bass drum. I get a nice long resonance from them, but the hard rubber mallets also give a bright initial attack, so it's both percussive and not. The thing to notice is that I am playing a steady rhythmic motif. With the 3 notes from the cymbals, it's also melodic. Now there's a misconception among some people that playing free, is just that all the time, and that any sort of repeating rhythms/meter are shunned.

Playing free is not just playing with some sort of wild abandon. 
As you should have learned from this series so far, playing free is a well thought out expression of musical ideas based upon both previous work, and reacting to what is happening in the present moment. This means that, if I was playing a traditional drum set, I might break out into a swing pattern or a rock beat for an extended period of time. Because this is not preplanned, and I don't know how long it will go on, it is still improvisation. Now if I was to play a jazz swing pattern and the others joined in with me, it would still be free because none of it is preplanned. There is no head to start with and go back to. There is no fixed key signature or time signature. All of what we are playing could disappear in an instant and change into something else.

Free improvisation can contain repeating rhythms/meter.
So I play this pattern for a while and it is a nice contrast to the theremin. I speed it up and then dissolve it into more random notes on the cymbals, pressing the drum head to get a bit of vibrato. Then the theremin changes and I decided to change my sounds, removing the cymbals and going to just the bass drum. In a contrast to what I just played, I start a long roll, adding a deep, sustained tone to things. Then losing one mallet, I create a rhythm both by striking the drum with one hand, and rubbing the head with the other. I get a nice contrast of the staccato hits with the mallet and the legato finger nail scrapes. 

This goes on for a while until I drop the mallet and start playing swirling motions on the drum with my fingers and nails. Right here I'm thinking texture. Swirling/scraping sound. Then things move to hands & fingers. I'm thinking more traditional hand drumming here. 

Playing the drum open and ringing. 
Muffling it with my hand/s. 
Pushing the head to change the pitch. 

I  listen to the flute and react to the various trills Erin is playing. I move into a traditional conga pattern I learned eons ago from a great player named, Montego Joe. And as the sunlight fades, so to does the music.

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Video link

~ MB

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Improvisation, Part 7 - Bettine/Brophy/Kern Trio

Here we are, Part 7 of looking at Improvisation, or more specifically, how I improvise. This might be a good place to take a look at the actual definition of improvise, from Merriam-Webster:

Definition of improvise
im·pro·vised   im·pro·vis·ing
transitive verb

  1. to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously  
  2. to make, invent, or arrange offhand 
to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand <improvise a meal>

The idea here, as a musician, is to make things up as you go along, with whatever instruments you have. Now with a percussionist, this is such an open ended thing: just about anything can become a percussion instrument of some sort. I know this in my own work, often using scrap metal, kitchen pans/bowla and utensils, or found objects. One of my favorite places to find new “instruments ” is thrift stores. 

So for this session, besides my regular Gong/Drum set up, I went through bags and boxes I have that are filled with percussion. I looked for instruments that had interesting sounds that I felt would be fun to work with. And that's a big part of this, I wanted to have fun

Another part of this is to try and bring a clear, open mind to the proceedings. As musicians, we always have our favorite licks/riffs/ideas that we use on a regular basis. One possible problem is, that in improvising, we can end up merely repeating familiar things that we've done many times before. 

Is that really improvising? 

To help keep me from falling into repetition (which usually isn't a problem),  I imposed a rule for the session: don't use the same instruments/ideas over & over. So other than the bass drum and large Gongs, I tried to use different instruments/sounds for each track. And if I did use something again, I tried to use it in a different way. With the bass drum and large Gongs, I changed mallets, and I changed the types of sounds I drew out of them.

One advantage I had, was that I was improvising with a changing list of musicians, so the musical context constantly changed. With this in mind, one sound/idea that I played with a trumpet, would be very different when played with electronics. Thus, for me, a lot of this became about the context of the music. But the final say so was always the music itself: what did the music call for? If I had just used a small Opera Gong, and when the next musician came in, the music called for a small Opera Gong, I used it again, because the music always has the final say. The same thing also works in the opposite way, like if I wanted to play something, say a wood block, but the music just didn't say, woodblock. In that case, I would leave the woodblock out.

We can carry this out a bit further, asking, “If I impose rules on my improvising, is it still improvising?” But the danger is, we can end up getting caught up in some sort of existential möbius strip, with no beginning or ending. Suffice to say, this is how I see and approach improvising. I'm sure you have different ideas about it.

Bettine/Brophy/Kern Trio #2

For this second improvisation, Erin Brophy switched from voice to sax. This made things less etherial, yet kept things similar, with her playing long notes and phrases, similar to her vocal lines. The whole piece was very slow moving. Now here is where I had a choice:

  1. Match what was going on and play very open, allowing the music to keep moving and unfolding slowly.
  2. As a counterpoint, play something more rhythmic and driving, perhaps using a hand drum or the bass drum.
  3. Start one way and switch to the other.
As you'll see, I chose to follow #1 and keep things open and slow. This was neither a good, nor bad decision. It was just my choice at that particular moment in time. If I had moved to the drums and played more rhythmically, the music would've most likely taken a different course. So again, improvising in this manner is all about choices. And Erin or Daniel could've played something different, which might have set me off in a different direction. As it happened, the 3 of us kept things moving at an unhurried pace for this track.

I started out by playing the large bell plate and a few Gongs, spacing my notes far apart, letting the sounds fade away before I struck another one. The sax and theremin had more movement in their lines, but it was still slow. 

As things moved on, I switched to playing my Trigon, which is a triangular spinning bell plate, made by Martin Bläse in Germany. This is higher pitched, and adds a different dimension with its' spinning/warbling tone. Next, I switched to playing 2 Drilbu Bells and then I brought in some Kaizee (Burma Bells) and Ogororo Bell Plates. I also used a small rubber mallet to strike the center of the large Gongs, bringing out a higher pitched bell-like tone. So Bells seemed to be the theme for this piece.

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Brophy/Kern/Bettine #6 video link,

~ MB