One of the great things about improvisation is that you can have a musical conversation with anyone who ‘speaks the language.’ I met Werner Elmker indirectly. Werner is an amazingly versatile and talented pillar of the artistic community of Fairfield, IA; my wife (Shari Rhoads) had used his video and photography services for her arts organization Concertia, and she recommended him to me to do some photos for my new CD Soundings. So I connected with him, and it was a very successful photo shoot. As we got to talking, I found out that he was and is both a classical pianist as well as an improviser and fairly quickly we resolved to get together and make (up) music. So I went to Fairfield recently for some spontaneous duets with him. The video here is one of them, filmed on the stage of the Sondheim Center (Werner used remote control; when he clapped, the cameras started rolling. What an age we live in…). We did minimal planning in the improvisations. Here we just picked a scale and started playing. A one-time shot. It was a wonderful session, all the things that improv does so well – a musical conversation where you just play and listen and react and go and create until it seems time to end. I look forward to the next time we get together.
Thanks to Daniel Roca for sending the link to this wonderful video of an improvised piano performance by Juan Manuel Cisneros.
I am sitting at the dining room table of ace cellist and improviser Gil Selinger. Gil is one third of our classical improv trio, Duende, along with me on horn and Evan Mazunik on piano. We gave a concert in the city last Wednesday. You had something of an introduction to his background in the last interview; I wanted to take this chance to continue to interview Gil about all things improv.
JA: Let’s start your thoughts about the concert.
Gil: It was an interesting mix. The Duende CD [“Mosaic“] had a lot of structured arrangements. In concert we worked in a freer manner. We left it a lot more wide open. We only had one day [before the concert] to “rehearse,” so it worked well. One of the underlying premises of this Interzone series of concerts was to present not just the whole group, but also solos, duos, etc. This is what we did here: trio, horn and cello, cello and piano, solo piano, piano and horn. We also used ideas from each of us. We did different kinds of improv ‘games’. We used some audience participation. It was very successful – I was a little nervous about it – Evan and you have more experience in it. But it worked well. NY is a tricky place – there are so many different kinds of events competing for your attend. We came up with something that no one else has done – territory that no one else has done (to my knowledge) – we’re exploring new ground.
JA: How would you characterize this kind of music or improvisation? For people who don’t know what improvised classical music can sound like.
Free improvisation, especially with mixed ability groups, poses a problem for assessment, since it is virtually impossible to establish criteria for performances. Furthermore, any sense of competition within the group will ruin the integrity of the music, especially when the assessor is participating. My solution to these problems is to keep assessment well away from the practice of improvisation. I ask students to produce three performances. After each, the participants and the rest enter into, often heated debate about the music and the politics of its production. I then give them time to take notes. I tape-record all performances, and keep them in the university library alongside copies of the plans they are based on. These records, together with individual students’ own notes on class debates, constitute the study materials for the course.
I/we will be taking a short break from posts. Evan and I are doing a 3 day improv residency at Cedarville University in Ohio. We will debrief in this space when we get back, but here’s a look at our schedule. We asked them to please use us to the last drop of blood, and they came up with a pretty varied and interesting schedule for us, which will include:
Working with large ensembles: Mixed and women’s choirs; symphonic band; jazz band; brass choir, and orchestra.
Discussions/demos/clinics with Music History class, Aural Skills Class, Irish Music class, Church Administration, Instrumental Conducting, Music Education
Jam sessions with students
Our recital (more of a Cital – no ‘re’ anything) of Really New Music
An improv recital with students who have done an afternoon improv workshop with us.
We can’t wait! We’ll be back next weekend and tell you about our adventures.
The ability to improvise freely is a common skill applied whether in conversation, role-play, movement, dance, or the playing of games, and yet it is an ability that is seemingly suppressed through the conventions of music training. – Jonty Stockdale, “Reading Around Free Improvisation,” The Source: Challenging Jazz Criticism 1 (2004), p. 112