Winging It With Piet

Piet [pron. “peet”] Swerts is a Belgian composer/pianist who is a giant among composers for saxophone music, and our [i.e. U of Iowa] sax prof Kenneth Tse invited him to be a guest artist at UI: for masterclasses and solo piano and chamber music recitals of his music. He hasn’t written much for horn, but I was tapped to perform his “Signals” for horn and piano on the chamber music concert. We hit it off immediately and talked about all sorts of things before settling down to rehearse. At one point I was telling him about my classical improv class and Latitude Ensemble [improvised chamber music], and got a better idea: instead of telling, show.

“Let’s make up some music,” I said. “I’ll start, you come in.” He’s a pianist and composer, but hadn’t improvised before with anyone. But he was game. It was remarkable – he jumped in, echoing the motif I had started with, then embellishing it, then transposing it. We tossed ideas back and forth, developing the juicier ones. It was as though he had been doing this for a long time. Since my splendid collaborator Evan Mazunik moved to the Big Apple some years ago, I haven’t had much of a chance to improvise like this with a partner. It was terrific fun; very much like being back with Evan making wonderful spontaneous chamber music. Exhilarating!

We finally wrapped up the piece. Then I said, “OK, your turn. You start.” He hesitated nary a moment and was off on a new adventure. Great fun.

We had another session the next day which was perhaps even more amazing. After rehearsing the piece, we improvised over the melodic and rhythmic motifs of the piece. Our improvisation ended up being about twice as long as the original. I wish I could do that with the composer of every solo piece!

I think he was as amazed with himself as much as anything. He was an improviser and composer, but had never done this before. It backed up my premise that classical improv is 1) easy and 2) fun. You just have to be willing to explore, experiment, take some risks, listen for ideas and then track them down and play around with them. A lot of traditionally trained musicians have had this kind of spirit long since squeezed out of them in the quest for “immaculate recitation.” So their minds are closed to the idea of inventing any of their own (spontaneous) music,  and they thus miss out on 1) a wonderful balance to “literate” study, 2) a lot of collaborative fun and 3) a highly effective learning tool for both music and technique.

I also told Piet about Soundpainting (a system of gestures devised two decades ago by NY composer/jazzer/conductor Walter Thompson) for improvising with groups – composing in real time), which was also new to him.

I’m curious to see what he will come up with when he gets back home. I miss our collaboration already.

PS: just before the concert where Piet and I performed his “Signals”, I said, with a reasonably straight face, “Piet, if I have any trouble here or get lost, I’m going to improvise the rest of the piece on its motifs.”

He just smiled and said, “No problem.”

[This is a “reprint” of an April 2010 post in my other blog, Horninsights]