Improvisation, Part 2 - Developing A Rhythmic Language

Much as we speak, each of us has our own musical language. In this second part on Improvisation, I'm going to look at what makes up my musical language. These are the ideas that I use to create what is a very personal view of music. You may use some of the same, or you may use completely different ideas. But this is what works for me.

The 3 Point Method

In art, color can be broken down into 3s: Additive Color uses red, yellow, and blue (the primary colors) to create all other colors. Subtractive Color (like your home printer) uses yellow, magenta, and cyan to create all other colors. Then there are the 3 attributes of lightness, saturation, and hue that further affect color. 

In Euclidean Geometry we have the point, line, and plane. In real life, we have the point where we are, and then also up & down, left & right, in & out, etc. So too in music, many ideas can be broken down into 3s. While this is all a simplistic explanation, it serves the purpose of denoting that we often have 3 options to work with.

Percussive Perspective

The drum, Gong, and many other percussion instruments can usually be broken down into 3 zones:

The 3 main tone centers

In general, the center has a deep, focused sound, while the edge has a bright, ringy sound, with the middle a blend of the 2. Note that this is all variable by the use of different sticks/mallets/fingers and muffling. With striking implements, there are variables such as small to large, soft to hard, and different materials: wood, metal, plastic, yarn, cord, felt, etc. On a drum, there are also many different types of heads that will affect the sound and tones available. Other variables are striking, scraping, rubbing, shaking, etc., or combinations of these. 

For me, it's all about listening. I'm always listening to my instruments, listening to the sound in the air/room, and listening to any other musicians I am playing with. I'm especially listening to how the sounds interact. Even when playing solo, I'm listening to the interaction of my sounds, because I often have well over 50 different types of sounds/textures available to me.

In my mind I'm also asking questions:

  • Do I want these sounds to blend?
  • Do I want them to stand out?
  • Do I want sound and/or rhythmic contrast?
  • Do I want a combination of the above?
And these questions happen in real time, as I'm playing. Often they are not conscious thoughts/decisions, but they are impulses and intuitive motions based upon years of practice and performance. And that's incredibly important: you have to put in your homework. You just can't start hitting and shaking things, thinking it will sound great!

For example, if I'm playing with someone else, and they start playing a very smooth melodic idea. Some of my possible choices are:
  • Follow them and try to blend what I am doing with what they are doing.
  • Look for a sound contrast: if they are smooth, maybe I'll play something sharp and bright, like a shaker or high pitched bell/cymbal.
  • Look for rhythmic contrast: if they play something smooth/legato/arco, I'll play something staccato and/or something syncopated.
  • Look for texture contrast: if they play melodically, I'll play some noise sounds.
But nothing is perfect. Sometimes I'll start playing something and realize it's not working. I then have 2 choices:
  • See if I can modify what I'm doing to make it work.
  • Abandon what I'm doing and try to seamlessly move on to something else.
And sometimes the best thing to do is to have restraint and not play anything at all! As drummers, this is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, because we are trained to sort of play non-stop rhythm. Sometimes it's nice to just stop and listen.

In Part 3, we'll look at the set up and instruments I used for the recording session. In part 4, we'll look at some video and analize what I did.

~ MB


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