It's all about Listening—the Art of Improvising.

Choices Made, Direction Taken

(I'm often asked about how I create the music I play, especially the improvised stuff. This is an attempt to put into words how things went for me last night at a gig, while these thoughts are still fresh in my brainbox.)

I made a conscious choice 12 years ago to play my own music. I had played cover songs for what seemed like forever. Nothing wrong with that, but I’d been there, done that. I’d played my own music all along, but this was different. This was a commitment to play only my music in most situations. I’m not saying everyone should make the same decision, but just that this was right for me.

So the one big thing I’ve learned is that this music I create is all about self discovery. It’s about who I am now, and who I am in the future. A big part of this journey is improvised music, which I love, because you really have to put yourself out there. If you look at any sort of art form—music, dance, painting, writing—if you really jump into it, it’s all about you dancing at the edge of a precipice.

I learn something new, both about the music, and about myself, each time I play. I had the opportunity to play in an improvised Percussion Quartet last night. While I’m friends with one of the other percussionists, I met the other 2 last night. I had no preconceptions about how they played or what type of music they might create. And that was great. 

Process & Decision

It’s all about listening: listening to the others, to the room, to the audience, and to yourself. In these sort of musical situations, I like to just grab different instruments each time I pack up for a gig. I sort of look around my studio, look through boxes, and just find things that resonate with me at that time. Last night I brought big Gongs, little Gongs, Chinese cymbals, sheet metal, and a floor tom. Of course I know how these all sound, and I have certain techniques and ideas I use, but I'm also open to letting anything happen.

And last night everything happened. I played soft, I played fierce. I was melodic, I was rhythmic. I was hanging from the edge. I saw my part as that of both colorist and wild card. The quartet's instrumentation was vibes, 2 drum sets with small percussion, and myself. The vibes provided the melodic element, while the drums provided grooves and some rhythmic textures. So in listening, I needed to find a place to fit in. I saw the large Gongs as providing a backdrop to everything. Both single notes, and long swells, created a sort of sonic scenery for the other sounds to layer on top of. I spread out the small Gongs on top of a case and the floor tom. They added some melodic potential and accents to the other sounds. The floor tom was mainly used as a sound table for small percussion to be played on top of. 

Walking A Dangerous Line

The other part of this exploration was creating sounds, sometimes jagged, sometimes startling, to contrast with the melodic and rhythmic flow of the other 3. Sheet metal bent & beaten, shaken & rattled, flexed & stacked, was a way to create electronic sounds acoustically. I also attacked the Chinese cymbals and Gongs with a bow, sending shards of noise raining out into the room. But I always made sure to alternate the rhythmic/melodic elements with the pure noise, because it creates a tension & release. 

And it's all about listening. At times I worked to fit right in with the rhythms the drums were providing, while at others, I purposely went against the grain to create that bit of tension, that fringe element. But I was always listening. I generally have one rule: if I can't hear the other musicians, I'm too loud. So it's always about listening, and about hearing—I need to hear everyone else in order to fit into the mix. I know that with the instruments I choose, I can create very dense and very loud walls of sound, so I need to control what I'm doing. Yet at some points I would take things to that threshold where I obliterated the others, but then I'd pull things back. So besides tension & release, you need ebb & flow. Like the ocean, sometimes it's high tide, and sometimes it's low. 

Thought Process

And in the end, I'm often left wondering about what just happened. To me, improvisation is just opening up to where I channel sounds & rhythms from some other realm. Much of it is not a conscious decision of, "Ooh, I think I'll do this because it's cool," rather, it's just something coming through me like an electric current. Even when I'm playing solo, it's still about listening. Listening to myself, to what is happening in the moment. I just try to get out of the way and let the music through. What more can I do?

So I have a big solo concert coming up next Sunday. Much of it will be composed music of mine, but there are parts where I just open up and let through whatever shows up. I like that. I like the danger of it, because I know I can usually make something happen that's worthwhile. I'll be listening…

~ MB

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