The Hands Tell a Story: Gestural Improvisation

Hands Of Desperation

(Photo credit: chris@APL)

English: Two hands are opened palms up in an i...

ASL short for "I love you"

Clenched human fist

English: Counting Hand 3

We tried something new in improv class last week (well, it’s really always new, all the time): improvising without music.

“How do you do that?” you ask, and rightfully so. “And why?”

We started off like this. Two players sat in chairs and faced each other. The instructions were to create a piece using only their hands.

Why: because many of the things that we are try to achieve improvising with our instruments can be done using hand gestures. Let’s see how many we can come up with (let me know what I missed):

Chinese number 10 shown with two hands

•Generate a strong idea; repeat it; develop it, ornament/embellish/elaborate on it, vary it. This is what you will use when you solo.

•Dynamics (larger, smaller gestures)

•Steal ideas from each other (imitate)

•Be silent sometimes (don’t move)

•Ostinato (make a short series of repeating gestures) – makes a good accompaniment

No one had any trouble inventing with their hands, going to show that gesture is one of our native languages.

We had several pairs try the game, and it was clear that each pair learned something from the previous pair. The second pair went beyond straight hand gestures and added some facial gestures – making it, in effect, a small drama, so that it was not just moving geometry of the hand movements, but adding emotional content of two people interacting, tell their stories with their hands and expressions.

Another pair added sound: one player started off by clapping, which was gestural, but was a bit startling with the new unexpected dimension of sound. We talk about what happened after every piece; I said that clapping was OK as long as the piece was still mainly a gestural piece that had some incidental sound. Most of the time we have sound pieces that may have incidental gesture and other movements. Focusing on gesture is for the purposes of the class; if it were in a concert, any thing goes. As I often tell the class: we are not bound by the traditions of classical, jazz, folk, or any other genre or style in this class. We can be freely interdisciplinary in our discoveries. We may start with what looks like a traditional U-shaped chair set-up, but we can change it. We can move the chairs around. We can even remove the chairs. Or move around the room. Or go sit with the audience. Or enlist the audience in making sounds. Or change the lighting. Or switch instruments. Or suddenly start speaking. Or sing. Or play percussion. Or give each other oral suggestions or instructions during the piece. We may use printed notes or not (mostly not, but the possibility is there). We can play from graphic scores of any kind, including those created on the spot or by the audience. We can use any of a huge array of little percussion instruments. We can use body percussion. We can use room percussion. We can use stuff brought from home as percussion. We can pass out kazoos or other noisemakers to the audience (crinkling paper on cue is an interesting sound). All this and more. Get an idea. Try it. Listen. Adapt. Change. Repeat. There is just this: 1) you have to listen and respond to what is going on (you can’t just pretend you are alone and make any old noise you feel like without regard to what is going on in the piece – I’ve been in sessions where everyone ignored each other and just played ugly sounds fff – never again) and 2) it should make sense in some way and sound like music in some way – balance 50/50 (predictable and unpredictable) for both yourself and the audience. Anyway….

We then expanded the game by using 4 players in 4 chairs, facing inward in a cross- or diamond-shape. The rules were the same.

This group turned most of what they did into Call and Response, more of a Simon Says. One person did something and then each person responded – in canon – by imitating. That’s one way to do it, and ok for a while. There has to be a change at some point, though, because it gets too predictable for the audience. This group also borrowed the idea of drama from the duet before them and added some little “dramatic scenes” between adjacent players.

Next and last was a sextet – 6 players arranged in a wide U shape. This way they can only see each other peripherally, not straight on as in the other formations. They did some canon again, but then really pulled out the stops. They did a lot with the chairs: facing them backwards suddenly and in other directions. Hopping with them. Turning them upside down and lying on them. There was much initiation, and more drama. I wish I had videoed it. It was really a remarkable piece, very imaginative, using everything they had learned from the other pieces.

The only part that might have been different is the ending. Ending a piece is a perpetual quandry in this kind of improv where you are inventing the piece as you go. You have to listen and watch very hard to see if the moment for ending the piece has arrived. It is easy to get caught up in what you are doing at the moment and not listen to the whole – and then miss the chance to end the piece well. I thought the moment arrived when one of the players suddenly stood up on a chair and made a dramatic gesture to the group – that was it! But no. People were really into it, didn’t want to stop, and just kept going. And going. It wasn’t until 2 or 3 minutes later that the piece finally came to a halt. There was some good material in the meantime, but it was clearly too long. The hardest things about improv is remembering to not play sometimes and to end when the ending presents itself. Our lifeboat principle is this: if you hear then ending, then stop. If someone else keeps going, let them – don’t keep playing just because they are. Eventually, enough people will notice that it is time for the piece to end (even if it is only one – last one left). I have really only had one nightmare nonending in all the years of the class in concert. Some years ago, the final piece was a “free” piece. They were given no rules to start, just start and discover the rules as they went. The piece was perfectly fine, but no one wanted to stop, everyone kept playing, and the piece went on… and on… and on… and on… I kept thinking, they’ll end it, they’ll end it… but no. I thought the audience is going to leave pretty soon. Or I am. Or I will have to step up and wave them off. Finally, after an eternity (probably, 7-10 min. total, but it felt like weeks at the time), they ground to a halt.

So now we talk a lot about how to end. And I am less hesitant about stepping in and giving a cut-off gestures (or ‘finish your idea’ gesture) if necessary.

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