The Art of Improvising (It's All About Listening)

I get a lot of people asking me about improvisation and creativity: How do you do it? What do you exactly do? There's no one way to answer that, and I suspect that for many of us, it is a different experience. Improvising is a highly personal process, and one that's not easy to quantify and break down into any sort of steps. But a recent event I participated in offers a good example of how my creative process works.

Sometimes you are thrust into a situation where you need to be extremely creative in the moment. Recently I was in such a situation. The local monthly improvised music series, Unrehearsed, was celebrating its 1-year anniversary. The program featured many of the people who had been part of the series during the past year. Because of this, there were more featured groups than usual. This meant that each group would be given a very short period to perform one, maybe two short improv pieces. It also meant that to facilitate things, set up and tear down had to kept to a minimum.

To help with this, I decided to bring a bag with small Gongs and percussion that I could quickly spread out on the floor in front of me. I was scheduled to perform in a sax/guitar/percussion trio, but due to illness, the sax player bowed out. So it was just me, and Jay Mollerskov on guitar. This changed things somewhat, but not drastically. Jay and I had seen each other play in various situations, but had never actually played together. So this was a first meeting for us.

When our time came, I grabbed my bag and quickly spread my gear out on the carpet in front of me. I made up a sort of Floor Gamelan, with 12 small Gongs: 4-old Paiste Accent/Deco Gongs (7-13"), 3-Chinese Opera Gongs (all around 8/9"), 5-small Bao, Chau, and MA Gongs (5-8"). I also used an ancient UFIP Ictus 75 Ice Bell, a REMO spring drum, and a pair of Chinese Jingbo cymbals stacked on each other.

I also quickly set up my recorder on a small tripod in front of me to capture the audio. As it happened, I also had the video going, so I ended up with a rather interesting close up video of me playing some of the Gongs. You can get the idea of some of the techniques I used. Things to watch/listen for: melodies, repetition & variation, pitch bending the Gongs (not just the Opera Gongs which do that naturally), and different ways of striking to bring out different sounds. One thing you will see, is me playing a small bossed Bao Gong repeatedly, but using different strokes/pressure to get different sounds. At times I play very controlled, keeping the Gong flat on the carpet, producing a short, muted sound. But I also adjust my stroke, playing more aggressively, so that the Gong bounces on the carpet, letting the sound vibrate more and open up.

Improvising is all About Listening

As I stated, this was the first time Jay and I played together, so it's completely improvised. It's also the first time I used this exact percussion set up, so everything here I'm doing is in the moment. So what's going through my head as all this is happening? First, I'm listening to Jay, to what types of notes & rhythms he's producing. When it starts, he's playing short groups of muted notes, so I answer him with similar note bursts on the Gongs. I'm also muting the Gongs/s with one mallet while striking with the other (I'm also producing some pitch bend). In many ways I'm mimicking what he is doing.

I sometimes lift a Gong up to get a longer sound, thus adding some contrast to Jay's staccato notes. All the while I'm listening. That's the key here. I'm listening, and then thinking of what sounds I can make:

  • I can create the similar or same types of sounds & rhythms.
  • I can do something different to create contrast. 
  • I could even do something so different as to have no relation to what Jay is playing, so that we seem like two people not really playing together.

And all of this thought processing is happening in real time—listening/thinking/playing as one process. All the decisions are made on the fly, as this is one take with no re-do. 

You can see that I find little patterns, or melodies, that I repeat, creating a sense of familiarity. At 2:57 I start working with a straight 16th note pattern on the Bao Gong (I remember thinking/feeling that the straight 16ths had a real drive/forward motion that was incessant. Then hitting a different Gong brought in some pitch color. The 16ths were also a contrast to the short note groups Jay was playing). The 16ths created a sort of stability that Jay could work off of. If you listen closely, you can hear us then playing very similar ideas, creating a sense of unity in the improv. Definitely a case of both of us listening to each other.

There's no right or wrong way to improvise, and each situation will be different. Some ideas work & sound better than others. If something is working, keep going and develop it. If not, move on to something else. A big part of this is knowing your instrument/s and its sounds, so you can choose things accordingly. Especially in a duo, I look at it as a conversation, just like speaking. You say something, then listen, then respond. Listen, listen, listen to what is going on around you. I can never emphasize that enough.

Go forth and improvise (and listen)!

~ MB


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