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.

Brophy/Kern/Bettine #6 video link,

~ MB


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