Improv in Florida, Part 2

African Grey Parrot - Psittacus erithacus - macro

Florida improv adventures, continued. I’m at the University of Northern Florida as a guest of pianist/composer Gary Smart, Gary is a piano wizard (who can switch from stride to avant garde without missing a beat) and composer who has won a slew of awards, who met Henry Mancini and Leonard Bernstein and others as a young composer and prize winner, who has lived in Alaska, Japan, Germany, Wyoming, and Florida, who has an African Grey Parrot named Doc (who gladly sits on his shoulder for hours and who has his own distinct words for “Time to feed the parrot!” and “Bored!” and who loves to rips No. 2 pencils to bits with his beak), and, who has one of the two classes in classical (nonjazz) improv in the US that every music student must take before graduation (the other is taught by Charles Young at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point) (I have had one for 11 years, but it’s an elective and not required).

Yesterday I joined his class as the featured performers in the Friday afternoon performance class, attended by all music majors in the recital hall. Gary introduced me, then I freeformed about five minutes of talk on this kind of improv and the study thereof. Then Gary and I jumped into a short improv, piano and horn. Gary has a fabulous fluent facility with a kind of bouncy atonal improv, not something that I have spent much time with, so it was a fun challenge to join him in this end of the pool. After that, various trios and quartets of his studios took the stage for some pieces. I played a little horn, but percussion mostly (he enlisted several percussionists, who brought a number of instruments, including marimba, vibes, bell tree, snare, and more), or stayed silent. I was very impressed with what they came up with. I would have loved to see what would happen if my students and his students played together. My guess is that they would be able to create music together effortlessly, even the first time, even though our ‘dialects’ are a little different, which is likely to be the case anywhere/everywhere such a class is taught – it will reflect the tastes, experiences, and preferences of the teacher. I was glad to acquire some experience in a more atonal approach; what took a little more adjustment was that they were less married to a regular pulse that what I/we usually do. I brought something new to them – although we did not have time to get very far into Soundpainting in the previous workshop, we used SP and/or SP-esque gestures in the last ensemble finale piece. I taught audience several signals for some sounds they could make when asked (1 for sssss, 2 for random noises of their own choosing, 3 for foot stomp hits, plus a Volume Fader), which made for some interesting additions to the piece in various spots (it also functioned to keep the audience vitally involved and interested in the performance – now that they were part of it!). Although we did have time to get very far in learning signs in the one workshop session, I did some basic SP with the onstage players (or simply told them what to do next when the signs ran out). Then some back and forth with “hits” between stage and audience. Jolly good fun all around!

English: Panorama of the Castillo de San Marco...

The evening was improvised only in the conversation, which was lively and fun – we still had a lot of catching up to do from all the years between meetings, lots of stories, lots of jokes. Gary took me on a jaunt down the coast to the oldest town in America, St Augustine (founded 1565, I think). Very fun – a panorama of flamboyant  architecture of all kinds.

Lightner Museum and City Hall

Very touristy, which was fine with me – I was a tourist and happily picked up some shiny thises and thats in shops. The pedestrian district was replete with such shops and had a very New Orleans feel to it with lots of little balconies, live music, and restaurants. We concluded an excellent meal in a fine restaurant in the proper fashion: with Key Lime Pie!

To be continued…

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