Presented By Bill Cahn
improvise (im-pro-viz’), v.t. to compose extemporaneously, especially verse or music, bring about on a sudden, or without previous preparation; devise on the spur of the moment, or for a special occasion: v.i. to compose extemporaneously; do a thing in an offhand way.
improvisation (im-prov-i-sa’ shun), n. the act of improvising; (in music) the art of spontaneous composition, variation or ornamentation.
Types of Improvisation in Music
1. jazz improvisation – instrumentation, form/structure of composition and style are generally pre-determined by standard practices in the genre of music (eg. dixie-land, be-bop, rock-fusion, Brazilian, etc.). Performance techniques, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics, interplay with other performers are generally subject to the performer’s decisions, as long as these elements are somewhat consistent with the composition (eg. tune, chord progressions, phrase length, etc.).
A general (and possibly thorough) knowledge of music theory, standard performance techniques, musical styles, etc. is required of the performer(s).
2. improvisation in classical art music – instrumentation, form/structure of composition and style are generally pre-determined by standard practices in the genre of music (eg. plainsong, cantus firmus, Baroque ornamentation, cadenza within a concerto, etc.). Performance techniques, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics, interplay with other performers may be subject to the performer’s decisions, as long as these elements are generally consistent with the composition (eg. melody, motif or theme, harmonic progression, phrase length, etc.).
A thorough knowledge of music theory, standard performance techniques, musical styles, etc. is required of the performer(s).
3. abstract visual notation improvisation – instrumentation, form/structure of composition, style, performance techniques, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics, interplay with other performers are subject to the performer’s decisions, except as may be specifically instructed by the composer (eg. instru-mentation), or by the implications of the notational framework (eg. relative high/ low notation symbols implying high/low pitches).
Some (or possibly much) knowledge of music theory, standard performance techniques, musical styles, etc. is required of the performer(s).
4. free-form improvisation – instrumentation, form/structure of composition, style, performance techniques, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, dynamics (loudness), interplay with other performers are all subject to the performer’s decisions, except for any limitations (ie. length, motifs, etc.) that may be self-imposed by the performer(s).
Minimal (or possibly no prior) knowledge of music theory, standard performance techniques, musical styles, etc. is required of the performer(s).
Rules for the free-form improvisation in this session
1) Performers may play anything they wish; there are no mistakes.
2) Performers should listen as deeply as possible (to themselves and other performers), but there are no penalties for breaking this rule.
Introduction to Improvisation – a Workshop (2-hours)
(Format – concert seating/stage, audience)
EQUIPMENT NEEDED- audio cassette recorder, mic(s), amp, speaker(s), marimba, vibraphone, 5 pairs of marimba mallets
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This session has two interlocking areas of focus: performing and listening.
Part 1 (15-minutes) of the session (if needed) involves a brief presentation by Bill Cahn in which the basic techniques of performing on the marimba (a wooden-bar, keyboard percussion instrument similar to a xylophone) and vibraphone (a metal-bar, keyboard percussion instrument) are demonstrated. These basic techniques will enable session participants to make sounds that immediately can be combined to create musical pieces through a process of free-form improvisation.
Part 2 (remainder) of the session will consist of short free-form improvisations performed in duets – either two session participants, or Bill Cahn with one session participant at a time. Unlike jazz or classical improvisation, free-form improvisation does not require a knowledge of music theory. The object of the improvisations is to examine, through direct personal experience, the process of spontaneous music creation. There will be no limitations or guidelines on performances except that each performer will be encouraged to play whatever he/she wants to play. The following issues are likely to be confronted by performers:
a. How will I know what to play?
b. Should I try to play music with which I am already familiar?
c. How am I relating to the other performer?
d. Is what I am playing good?
e. Do I like what I am playing?
The necessity of facing such issues in an unfamiliar situation and then acting, even though there may be insecurity and uncertainty, requires each performer to be creative and intuitive at some level. Desirable outcomes of this experience would be that the performer (and listeners)be able to identify where in the performance creativity and/or “flow” was present and further, what was the nature of that creativity.
Each improvisation will be audio recorded and immediately played back for analysis by all of the session participants. The following kinds of issues are likely to be discussed:
For the performer –
f. Does the play-back sound different or the same to me as when I was performing?
g. Do I like what I am hearing?
h. What did I do that was creative?
For the listeners –
i. How does this improvised music relate to familiar music?
j. What were the risks faced by the performer(s)?
k. How did the two performers relate to each other?
l. What in the performance did I like/dislike?
Recommended Follow-up Reading
1. Booth, Eric. The Everyday Work of Art. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Inc., 1997
2. Claxton, Guy. Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000
3. Mathieu, W.A. The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991
4. Nachmanovich, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation In Life and Art. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1990
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