This time Lin and I trade solos over a drone; the soloist’s notes are limited to the notes of the natural horn, i.e. the harmonic series.
My book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (354 p,. 2008, GIA Publ.) has been out for a while and has enjoyed a certain modest success among classical musicians who would like to start creating their own music (aka improvising). But it has lacked one thing: video/audio examples of what this classical improv thing is. There is of course no one right answer – what it sounds like will depend on whose playing, and even the same players may have wildly different versions of any particular game. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have some examples of a few possibilities of some of the games. Continue reading
Last week was very busy; I gave lectures, presentations, and led improv games at the Arizona State University (John Ericson was the perfect host), then came back home (after a lot of airline delays) to segue into a tour with the Iowa Brass Quintet in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois (no improv there, unless you count the little jazz cadenza I got to do in our Porgy and Bess medley). Then came a three-day residency at the University of North Dakota (which still has huge piles of snow…) where I did in equal measure brass and improv workshops and presentations. Great people there, great attitudes – lots of new BFFs. Many thanks to my wonderful UND host, Kayla Nelson.
I got to do two improv concerts. The first one was partly based around something new to me. Dr. Mike Witgraaf had me play into a microphone; then he processed the sound with a software program (KYMA) and effected further changes using two hand-held Wii (the game) controllers via Bluetooth. The result was played through speakers, which mixed with my live sound. You can listen to the results here
1 http://youtu.be/k4F-ELZD4Yo 4:05
2 http://youtu.be/NwRogbxIbyM 4:07
3 http://youtu.be/lFBQV7wQXsI 5:59
4 http://youtu.be/sRMazAfJVeM 4:53
The second concert was also a lot of fun. I started off with a Daily Arkady (just start playing and see what happens). Then came an improv trio – me, Jim Popejoy on vibes, and a student djembe player (her name escapes me now to my great embarrassment, but she played wonderfully). We just did the classical improv thing – start playing, listen to each other, adjust/adapt to have a balance of unity and variety (the predictable and the unpredictable). Man, that was fun. We finished up with a Soundpainting. The ensemble had just learned about 30 or so SP gestures earlier in the day, but they did terrific on such short notice.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
The joys and benefits of chamber music are well-known. Everyone has an important role and part to play, so challenge and motivation are built-in. While it’s easy to “hide” in a large ensemble, in chamber music you hear everyone and everyone hears you. So you naturally acquire sharper rhythmic skills, sense of pitch, and sensitivity to appropriate dynamics. It’s a great social adventure as well, working closely together with others to achieve a common purpose.
Nearly every musician with even modest training has had some opportunity to play standard chamber music, be it string quartets, brass or woodwind quintets, or other mixed instrumentations. But what’s missing from nearly everyone’s training is making up one’s own chamber music, i.e. creating the piece as you go along. In this situation where you play without ink, all the joys and benefits of playing chamber music from sheet music are amplified, because you are all responsible every instant for creating a piece of music that makes sense and is satisfying to both performer and audience. The listening skills that are enhanced by traditional chamber music are developed to a much higher level in improvised chamber. The player must instantaneously and continuously analyze melodic shapes and motifs, modes and keys, rhythms, and timbres, then decide the appropriate role – solo/counterpoint/accompaniment/silence – and create it while listening to the whole, evaluating, and adjusting and adapting.
If this sounds overwhelmingly complex and difficult, think this: you already do this every day. It’s called conversation. You take something you already know well (the language) and use in a way that is interesting and meaningful to you to express what you are feeling in the moment. You listen, you respond, you enjoy the interaction. You do the same things in improvised chamber music, except that you can do it with several more people at the same time and still make sense.
Just published by GIA: Improv Duets for Classical Musicians by me.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
“Playing duets from the ink is fun and full of musical vitamins, but it needs a complementary aural approach to develop all-around musicianship. Improvising – duets or otherwise – is not usually a part of a classical musician’s training, but this book aims to provide a quick and easy way for classical players to make up for this lack. Classical players may gasp at the thought of having to invent their own material, but if they go so far as to dare to try out an improvisation game like those in this book, they quickly discover that improvising does not have to mean playing bebop – it simply means making your own decisions about what to play, and that it is 1) easy and 2) fun, and 3) great for your technique and musicianship, especially working/playing with another person. Think of it this way: playing written duets is to improvising duets as reading the lines of dialogue of a play is to having a lively conversation. It is one kind of challenge to bring to life the art of a playwright in reading (or acting out) the lines of a play. It is a highly engaging and very different sort of challenge to explore a subject in extemporaneous conversation with a partner. You are both creating together in real time, playing off of each other, inspiring each other, coming up with material that neither could have invented on their own. An improvised duet is a musical conversation, and in the same way, you don’t plan ahead of time exactly what you’re going to say, but you take all of your combined knowledge, imagination, and emotions create and shape a brand new ‘performance’ that is surprising, gratifying, and invigorating. Improvising duets means ‘thinking in music.’ It takes gumption to get started doing this by yourself, but add another player and the internal blocks to the process melt away. In brief, improvised duets are a perfect complement to written duets and are a fun and effective way to develop technique and musicality.”
The Table of Contents:
I just received word from the publisher that my three new classical improv books will be published in time for the Midwest Band Clinic in mid-December. I will give more information at that time, but here are the basics for a little preview of what’s coming:
Improvised Duets for Classical Musicians by Jeffrey Agrell
GIA (www.giamusic.com) G-8381 Spiral bound, 54 pages $16.95
Improvised Chamber Music: Spontaneous Chamber Music Games for Four (or Three or Five) Players by Jeffrey Agrell
GIA (www.giamusic.com) G-8380 Spiral bound, 64 pages $18.95
Creative Pedagogy for Piano Teachers: Using Musical Games and Aural Pedagogy Techniques as a Dynamic Supplement for Teaching Piano by Jeffrey Agrell and Aura Strohschein
GIA (www.giamusic.com) G-8379 Spiral bound, 66 pages $18.95
(PS: if you are a reviewer for a music publication, get in touch with me at email@example.com)
PPS and shameless plug alert: If you aren’t familiar with them yet, you should also check out my previously published GIA books:
Improv Games for One Player (50 p.)
After the tragic events of 9-11, I was moved to make an expression of grief in music. The result was “September Elegy” for natural horn (= no valves) in Eb and piano. There are 4 sections: Prologue, Chorale, Reflection, and Epilogue. Only the Chorale is written out; the rest are improvised, the limitation being the atmosphere or mood of the piece. I recorded the piece with Evan Mazunik in our CD “Repercussions.” It is published by Jomar Press and has enjoyed some modest popularity here and there among horn players brave enough to try some creative music (and who have a natural horn). Jeff Snedeker wrote about it in his article “The Natural Horn Today.” I think what might be most interesting thing about it is making the performer the partner of the composer. The performers here are given credit for being able to make a lot of their own choices; thus, every performance is and should be different. I would love to see more composers dare to trust players enough to be partners. Or have players write their own pieces like this whether composers come through or not.
Below is a recording done by me and Evan Mazunik, piano ca. 2005. See what you think.
One of the great things about classical improv is that you are not dependent on a composer to write something for your particular group. Notation-only players are forced into instrumentations which may or may not line up with whom they would actually like to play with. When you are a music creator, you can play with anyone else who can “speak music” at any level and any instrument.
Duende is an unusual trio: horn, cello, and piano, made up of me, Gil Selinger, and Evan Mazunik. We made a terrific CD (“Mosaic“) some years back (available from www.msrcd.com) where we took medieval and Renaissance music and used it as source material for improvisation. It came about thusly: Evan and I had been working together as a duo for about four years at the University of Iowa, giving improv workshops, concerts, and we made a CD (“Repercussions” – available from www.cdbaby.com). Then Evan left school and moved to New York, where he met improvising cellist Gil Selinger. Evan and I had already worked up some of this early music repertoire during a creative residency we spent at The Centrum (in Port Townsend, WA, on the grounds where they filmed “Officer and a Gentleman” with Richard Gere and Debra Winger). Gil brought some ideas and we had the material for “Mosaic.”