Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Improvisation

I attended a lecture-recital on free improvisation by Concordia faculty Dr. Nat Dickey and student Adam Hochstatter '09. I can freely admit that improvisation is not one of my strongest suits as a performer, so the topic itself piqued my interest as I continue to develop my non-strength areas as an educator.

Dr. Dickey performed on trombone, and Adam on piano (their own primary instruments, respectively). The first thing I noticed was the intimate communication between both performers. Each performer quickly picked up on motific material established by the other player, often repeating thematic ideas, or complementing with accompanimental material. In the lecture (which was interspersed between improvisations), Dr. Dickey explained how they use three common responses as they interact with each other:

1. A performer may agree with the statement of the other performer, and acknowledge it by repeating or imitating the material.
2. A performer may disagree with the statement of the other performer, and create a contrasting or disjunct response.
3. A performer may encourage the other performer to continue a melodic idea by introducing an accompanimental figure (or vice versa).

Both Adam and Dr. Dickey emphasized that there are "no wrong answers" in free improvisation. Responses can be agreed or disagreed upon, but it is ultimately this interactive conversation that lies at the heart of this medium. Adam reflected on how his study of free improvisation played a role in his own life decisions. "Even the simple things like deciding whether or not to watch tv, or deciding what to watch on tv can be affected by the process of improvisation." The performers used a variety of techniques to focus on the freedom of the music, one of which was meditation. They also utilized multiple inspirations for their improvisations, three of which were shared at the performance:

  • A photograph of a painting was chosen by a member of the audience. The picture was revealed to the performers at the performance, and they had thirty seconds to reflect and internalize the painting before the improvisation. In this instance the painting (which was abstract) held a very different meaning for both performers which was heard during the performance (and in their comments afterwards).
  • A noun, verb, adverb, and location were drawn from a pile of audience-submitted words. In this case "Eyes destroy quickly fields," was the basis of the improvisation. Both players interpreted this as a deeper meaning for examining memories of the past and their present destruction. The words "destroy" and "fields" elicited strong mental images.
  • Strictly "free-improvisation" based off of the emotions and interactions of the performers.

One student asked if Dr. Dickey and Adam thought that truly free improvisation could occur, since we naturally create constructs and forms based on previous ideas. Dr. Dickey answered that this is like asking if there is any "original thought," a question which is also frequently debated. Both performers admitted that there were elements of form and structure but that ultimately, they were free to express their own ideas. Another student asked if this music should ever be performed for mass audiences. Both performers agreed that the music was really for themselves and that most people who understand the medium are part of a small intellectual community within the music realm. Dr. Dickey cited examples in the 1960s when there was a following of people intrigued by the free-improvisation performers, but that ultimately, a broad-based free-improvisation would inhibit the performers philosophically as they would try to perform for an audience rather than themselves.

Dr. Dickey recommended Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Stephen Nachmanovitch) to further explore the issue in musical and nonmusical contexts.

2 comments:

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