A Look At improvisation

Improvisation. The word has a lot of connotations and implications. For most people, it means making things up in the moment. But is that really what happens? I do a lot of work in what is popularly called free music, or free improvisation

The term “free improvisation,” to me, means nothing. When we play, we are not free. It is impossible to be free. Because the moment you start a sound, a musical gesture, a movement, the memory starts and I try to give a sense of organization, texture, form, repetition, variation. Even if it’s just noise, you have to organize. I am an improviser who composes. That’s why, for me, improvisation is a chamber music.”
Bassist/composer Joëlle Léandre (from this wonderful Interview)


I agree with what Joëlle says: “It is impossible to be free.” I find that in my own work, when I'm improvising, I always impose rules and structure on what I'm playing. As a trained musician, I have years of music and ideas in my head. When I improvise, I draw upon those ideas. So as I play, I'm using learned techniques, learned patterns, learned ideas. To play completely free—that is with no rules and complete disregard for any structures or ideas—is anarchy. The best example of this is giving a 5-year old a pair of drumsticks and putting them with a drum set. They just flail away with total abandon. But while at first it may sound cute, or interesting, after a while, it just becomes noise, and we would quickly grab the sticks away from them! Anarchy is not enjoyable.

The art of improvising…

For improvisation to be listenable, it needs to have structure, even if that structure is made up as the music goes along. For me, I'm always thinking about structure. Not necessarily verse-chorus-verse structure, but thinking about how the notes, sounds, and rhythms relate to each other, and deciding which one to play next. And so much of this is all based on what I already know, what I have already experienced. This is not to say that the unexpected doesn't happen, because it does. Out of all of this, magic moments of pure unknown are created, but it's up to me to make sense of them within the context of the musical event that is happening at that moment.

And I find that those magical moments, once the gift of a point in time, make their way into my tool box, and I pull them out again later on. So today's improvisation becomes tomorrow's learned and structured music. It's inevitable, as everything we play builds upon what we played before, and becomes a part of us. 

So context is a big part of improvisation. If I'm playing with a flute player, it does me (or them) no good if I insist on banging a Gong or bass drum at triple forte, effectively drowning out all flute sounds. Maybe I'm just being free, just doing my own thing, but how long will an audience (or the flautist for that matter) put up with it? The same goes for improvising with others. If I completely ignore what they are doing and, insist on just playing my own thing, what would be the point in that? Again, as Joëlle says: “It is impossible to be free.”

~ MB


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