Last spring I recorded a series of improvisations in between takes for an album of folk-oriented music calledBound to Go Away.I had originally intended to make an album that was half folk and half experimental. I then decided (wisely, I think) to make two separate albums. The improvised album will be called Rough Spaces, and I hope to release it some time this year.
I thought that recording the improvised music between takes for the other album would be a good way to work off some of the frustration of trying to get the most accurate recording, since, of course, with completely improvised music there is no pre-conceived idea to adhere to.
I did, however, set some guidelines for myself while I was improvising.I tried to be very clear with my ideas, thinking to myself, “this piece is about this musical idea,” whether the idea is a melody, a noise, a technique, a texture, or a mood. I forced myself to stay in one musical zone rather than quickly moving though different styles and textures. I repeated ideas and remembered them in order to bring them back later on in the piece. I was also conscious of making strong endings.
When deciding what to include on the album there were many cases where I was happy with the ending, but I needed to go back and choose where I thought the piece really started.While recording, I often spent a bit of time meandering until I landed on a clear idea.
I often think that the amount of time spent on a piece does not necessarily correlate to its quality. You could spend 5 years writing something that, despite all your efforts, just does not work, and you could improvise something that works perfectly.One advantage to spending time on a piece is that it acquires a significance.Each gesture in a piece starts to take on a meaning as you keep turning it over and over again and trying it different ways. When improvising, it’s ephemeral, of course. That is, unless you record it. And then listen to it over and over and try to decide where it starts and ends, what name you should give to it, where it should be in your track listing, and so on. The goal for me is to create something that has significance, that can stick in your mind. I want everything I play to have some sort of meaning, to stir up some distant memory perhaps, or a memory of a moment from earlier in the same piece. I also wanted to think more about what I do in when I improvise, and how I can further develop my own musical language. One way of doing this is transcription, which is a bit like reverse composition.
I spent a long time trying to accurately represent the notes I played in my piece, Chaos Magicians.My improvisations tend to be a lot more interesting than my compositions, because I am not restrained by what can be notated. Also when I improvise, all of the musical elements become essential to the piece, while when writing music down ahead of time I tend to focus more on pitches and rhythms.Elements like dynamics and articulations can be represented in notation, but when I improvise, I might articulate something in a particular way that I can’t notate. And that specific articulation becomes integral to the piece. Also it’s difficult to be entirely accurate transcribing rhythms as well. When interpreting notated music, you often don’t play exactly what is written, so it works both ways. I had a teacher who said notated music is just a blueprint, there is much more that the player adds.
Despite the fact that musical notation is limited, the process helped me gain an understanding of my own choices when I improvise. It helped to visualize what I was thinking while I was playing. I could see the motives, how they relate to each other, where they appear in different registers, and how one note in a particular register connects to another note that occurs a few seconds later.I wanted to take what I’ve picked up from this exercise and apply it to my compositions.
There are many opinions about the difference between composition and improvisation.I often think of composition as the act of writing down the notes. It could also be any sort of advanced planning.Some people think of the word improvisation as something that is not serious, something that is off the cuff, and for that reason, it lacks significance.This is one reason some people prefer the term spontaneous composition. For some, the term composition might imply something about the level of consciousness of the player when playing spontaneously.In many musical traditions, like Hindustani and West African music, improvisation has very specific parameters; the improviser chooses from a certain set of melodic gestures or rhythmic patterns. In free improvisation there are fewer parameters, but there are still expectations and opinions about the quality of improvisations and improvisers.
I wanted each piece on this album to have an identifiable shape and character.For a piece to mean something, it can help to associate it with something else. I chose titles that related to experiences and stories in my life over the past year and a half. For the most part I was not thinking of those things when I was making the recordings, the pieces started to acquire more significance to me after I had named them. Of course, the names are something only I, and perhaps my wife and her mom, would have any associations with. But with an interesting title, rather than “improvisation number 1” or “fast and loud,” the listener can create their own associations, which can make musical experience richer.To further enhance the meaning of the music, and to engage with the music in a different way, I made a series of video interpretations of five of the pieces on the album. Some of the videos are more abstract and connect just to the mood of the music, and others are stories with images that connect, at times, very specifically to gestures in the music. The selection of images to accompany the music began to feel almost like transcribing musical notes.
In my piece “Wyoming,”I used found home movie footage of a vacation in the 1970s. There were cowboys, tourists and locals and each character started to relate to what was happening in the music and a story started to take shape.I then added some clips from an old Western film, the idea being that these tourists were in Wyoming searching for an ideal myth of the American west, with John Wayne on horseback magically appearing through a telescope. For “70s Bike Chase” I did have the image of a chase scene while I was playing. I liked those horn jabs you hear in music for chase scenes in 1970s movies. Curtis Mayfield’s “Junky Chase” from Superfly is a good example. I wanted to build up tension the same way as the music in those movies, and to create a sense of a rhythmic pulse (or groove) with very minimal elements and of course no other instruments. For this film I used footage from a movie about bikers juxtaposed with a movie about a beauty pageant. Both films were from the 1970s.I made quicker and quicker cuts between the two films to create the sense that bikers were encroaching on the pageant.For “Chaos Magicians” I used an old newsreel and some movies of birds. The term chaos magicians refers to members of the media stirring up emotions in order to gain viewership and possibly for other nefarious reasons.I didn’t want to be too direct so I used footage from the 1940s to represent the media. I initially didn’t know how the bird footage would fit but as I worked with it, the great blue heron became a character. I also found that a one note phrase towards the end reminded me of telegraph, which appears prominently in the footage.
In “Floating Out to Sea” I intended to play an elegy for friends and family who have recently passed away.The tremolos at the opening suggest the image of the title. It’s something that might happen to a person’s soul as it leaves this realm. For the video, I found a photo of the mantle in the living room of the house I grew up in. I found another photo of the mantle taken by my brother after he had cleared out the house before we left there in 2018.The mantle had special significance for me because it stayed almost exactly the same for the entire 40 years our family lived in the house. I have lost one brother and both of my parents now, along with the house. To represent this loss I lined up the two photos and made each item on the mantle disappear leaving only the empty mantle and the fireplace cover with one of the legs slightly askew. The light in the old photo was much warmer than the photo of the empty mantle. At the end there were no more lamps in the room so it was much paler and barren looking.
When recording “Skittering,” my only plan was to play something fast and quiet. I chose the title because I thought it sounded like moths. I used a video of gibbons I took when visiting the Roger Williams Park Zoo with friends and their kids. There was one gibbon who basically stayed put while the other one scurried all over the place. I had my phone pressed up against the glass so the shot stayed relatively still. This enabled me to layer the shots to make it look like multiple gibbons swinging and chasing each other while the other gibbon sat there.I thought of swinging gibbons showing off and saying “hey look what I can do” while the calm one is saying, “you don’t need to do all of that.”
It’s been an interesting process to think about this music in many different ways.My other reason for putting the transcription and the videos was to gain exposure for this music in the hopes of finding a record label for the album. I am grateful that these things have been a way for my friends and family to engage with the music in different ways. My hope is that the pieces on this album will have significance for others as well.