Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Carte Postale: Improvised Music

Only after I hung a piece of French poster art on the wall did I realize that it tells me exactly how I want to improvise music. The dominating image in this poster is a sphere of white--an orb of artificial light or perhaps the moon itself--held in the hands of a curvy, red-haired maiden. To employ that much "negative space" is a bold move, and yet it sells the advertisement: it is 1900 and you are in Paris at the World's Fair, lured to the Palais de l'Optique for its exhibits on light and optics.

The white space is the equivalent of silence, and it both illuminates and frames the remaining visual content in pleasing and interesting ways. I recently returned to the improv circuit (in one instance as audience member and another time as performer) and my old assessments held true. Why are people so afraid of silence? Why does "let's improvise" mean let's play without ceasing? I don't care if you play a piece of styrofoam with a violin bow, or a piano string with a quarter! Searching for new timbres is admirable, but playing a new timbre non-stop, in a fairly steady dynamic range, is just BORING. (Let's face it, folks: the bandwidth for styrofoam to actually "sound" is pretty damn narrow.) This sort of improv is theatrical music performance, perhaps, but not much more than that.

I definitely experienced more satisfaction playing my toy piano for a group of improvising dancers. Performance can be like that. (Ha!) The music and dance improv still ruffled some of my critical feathers, but for the first time, my usual annoyances were given a clear and obvious visual form. A dancer and a musician were paired together and the improvisation unfolded as a small ensemble with no more than, say, four dancers and four musicians performing at a given time. But for some reason, most people seemed to interpret the "pairing" to mean: when the dancer dances, the musician plays music; if the music stops, the dance stops; and vice versa. Improvising musicians can tend towards a "non-stop" aesthetic, and that quality became markedly apparent when watching it...in dance. A person in constant motion is about as interesting as that aforementioned piece of styrofoam. Besides, is this how great composition or choreography works? Of course not! I've watched choreography come to a screeching halt as the music builds toward some symphonic mess, and I've often thought that dance is at its most beautiful when decisively placed in the silences of a musical score.

I couldn't stop thinking of the poster on my wall at home, with its orb of silence resonating furiously in my mind. This articulation of nothing becomes my measure and my goal for improvised music. Presque rien? Ce n'est pas.


Intriguing - trying to find the balance is difficult in improvised music - so easy to over - or under - play. I attended a festival recently which was dominated by the quieter end of the game, so to speak (and watched Annette Krebs sawing away at some styrofoam with a bow, incidentally - but it was in a wider context and worked brilliantly. However - glad that wider context was there!) and it was fascinating to observe and listen to the way both the audience and the musicians responded to almost inaudible sounds at times. Given the amount of noise and volume I have experienced on gigs recently - and play with myself - it was both refreshing and thought provoking to enter into a zone where silence played such a large part as punctuation and framing...

By Blogger Rod..., at 1:43 PM  

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