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Archive for December, 2007

We could meet at around 1:00 at the music building tomorrow (Tuesday) to discus the improvisation, if that suits everyone.

Hope to see you then!

-Ben

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Before Wednesday?

Hey guys, can we meet up at some stage before wednesday? I think Sadie has all our numbers except Danny’s. Please get some sort of reply up soon!

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http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7133571.stm

German composer Stockhausen dies

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen was a member of the avant-garde movement

German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died at the age of 79. Born in Modrath, near Cologne, the prolific musician wrote more than 300 works from orchestral pieces to pure electronic music during his career.

He also appeared on the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album – with Paul McCartney one of his numerous fans in the world of rock and pop.

The composer died in Kuerten, western Germany, on Wednesday, the Stockhausen Foundation announced in a statement.

Ambitious opera

Best known for his avant-garde electronic work, Stockhausen was an experimental musician who utilised tape recorders and mathematics to create innovative, ground-breaking pieces.

His Electronic Study, 1953, was the first musical piece composed from pure sine wave sounds.

Electronic Study II, produced a year later, was the first work of electronic music to be notated and published.

But the composer rejected the idea that he was making the music of the future, writing in 1966: “What is modern today will be tradition tomorrow.”

Stockhausen’s most ambitious work was the seven-part operatic cycle Licht, each part of which is named after a day of the week.

Stockhausen pictured in 1974

Stockhausen, pictured in 1974, was at times controversial

It took Stockhausen 25 years to compose, beginning in 1977, and is due to be performed in full for the first time next year at The European Centre for the Arts Hellerau in Dresden, Germany.

The composer studied at the State Academy for Music in Cologne and the University of Cologne from 1947 to 1951.

In 1952 he went to Paris, where he worked under the composers Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.

Musicians such as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa and Bjork have cited him as an influence.

But he was not universally popular. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was once asked whether he had conducted any Stockhausen. He replied: “No, but I once trod in some.”

The composer also attracted controversy after the terrorist attacks on New York on 11 September 2001, which he reportedly described as “the greatest work of art there is in the entire cosmos”.

He apologised for the upset caused by the comments, but denied making the statement, saying he had been misquoted.

Stockhausen, who was married twice and had six children, will be buried in the forest cemetery in Kuerten.

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Review of the role of improvisation in live performance

Thomas Dolby and the Jazz Mafia:

For my concert review on improvisation in the context of musical performance, I recall going to see a hero of mine, Thomas Dolby. Well known back in the eighties for such songs as “Hyperactive” and “She blinded me with Science”, Thomas Dolby has been well regarded for many years in the musical fraternity not only for his compositional talent and virtuosity but also for his innovation in production and electroacoustic music. The concert took place on Thursday 11th October at Whelan’s music bar in Dublin, an intimate venue and one of the few places I expected to find Mr Dolby to be playing. Upon entering the building I was surprised and heartened to see so many of my own generation had discovered and come to see Dolby’s music being performed live. The stage was set up with things I recognised, MIDI controller keyboards, touch pad samplers, computer sequencers, and the classic analogue phase vocoder, the tools of an electronic musician. I knew I was in for a treat.

The support consisted mainly of electro acts (Black Affair and Neosupervital), whose songs consisted mainly of sequenced electronics and live bass. What I found most striking was the contrast between these support acts and Thomas himself. Whereas the support acts simply played their set in a planned, sequenced form, Thomas improvised the intros and outros using midi controllers and computer sequencers to play each part/section thus building each song from the ground up.

The use of improvisation within the boundaries of structure was exemplified during the performance of the song “Aliens Ate my Buick” in which the Jazz mafia (three piece horn section consisting of saxophone, trumpet and trombone) broke into a free Jazz improvisation while Thomas played the piano and bass parts on his synthesisers. During the performance many non verbal exchanges took place between performers; some of these were individual cues directed at specific performers to take an on the spot improvisations, others were more global in intent as they cued breaks into new modal sections and various key changes.

Much of the improvisation which took place was highly technical and within the realm of what Derek Bailey in “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music” describes as ‘idiomatic improvisation’ (pxi) that is improvisation within a well defined genre or style, in this case Jazz-Swing. Each member including Dolby himself displayed great technical proficiency within the idiom, looking back I am reminded of the great flamenco guitarist Paco Pena on the practice of improvisation, “I think I do prepare to be able, technically, to reach anything I want to reach on the guitar and for that, of course, I do my exercises and so on. But nothing specifically for improvisation.” (p17 Improvisation its nature and practice in music). Clearly practice tempered with experience and knowledge is vital for a convincing idiomatic improvisation. Certainly seasoned musicians like Dolby and Jazz mafia connect with the audience during these excursions. Another interesting element of the gig was the affable Dolby’s anecdotes in between song’s as he would tell stories about his life and career and of events that had inspired him to write various songs within the set. One notable story was the origins of ‘One of our Submarines is Missing’ a song about Dolby’s uncle, a submarine officer whose submarine was lost during the second world war. The anecdotes allowed him to create a relaxed rapport with the audience. Much of the discourse gave perspective on both the songs and created an emotional connection with the songs for both performer and audience which I believe affected the mood of the performance. As Derek Bailey says on improvisation and the connection of performers and audience:

“Undeniably, the audience for improvisation, good or bad, active or passive, sympathetic or hostile has a power that no other audience has. It can affect the creation of that which is being witnessed. And perhaps because of that possibility the audience for improvisation has a degree of intimacy with the music that is not achieved by any other situation.”(p44).

Personally I feel that the venue reflected the intimacy and the ultimate emotional impact of the performance.

Rab McCullough Blues Band: A local and well regarded blues band, Rab McCullough band have been the staple on Thursday nights at the Empire bar. Having played for some years now at the Empire the Rab McCullough blues band has gained a loyal local following which continues to gain popularity. I had seen the band many times over the years and not least because of the tenacity and energy of the seasoned McCullough players but because of the showmanship and skill displayed by the musicians.

It was Thursday the 8th of November on the night I went to see them; something I had always liked about the band was their ability to rotate and change the set to keep each gig fresh and engaging. The set on that night consisted of many classic blues tunes including Jimi Hendrix’s ”All Along the Watch tower” and the now legendary cover of “Voodoo child” in which Rab solos the guitar behind his back and with his teeth. Within the set other blues classics such as Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here comes the night’ were featured. Something I believe the band owes its great success is to the solid drum bass and piano players as well as McCullough’s impressive extended blues solos. The gravelly New Orleans quality of Rabs voice resonate a classic blues style that captures a distinct blues atmosphere and the use of “idiomatic improvisation” was again evident in the performance.

Unlike the Dolby gig, the audience of this particular gig took to dancing to the songs perhaps because of the mass appeal of the material and the beat and rhythm of the music. Certainly I would say that there was very much a dance hall air about the gig as there was a fairly broad age group from twenty something too fifty something couples to various concert going groups. Much of Rabs improvisation revolved around the use of major and minor pentatonic scales including the Blues scale and relative minor blues scales. An example of Rab’s use of the major pentatonic was most evident during his rendition of “All along the watch tower” in which his use of double stops and on the spot riffs was coupled with the classic riffs Hendrix recorded on the original.

Again the use of cueing was evidence during extended solo sections between individual performers and double timing rhythms. At one point during a particular solo over “Black magic woman” Rab closed his eyes as if connecting himself “into” the music while soloing over the piece while the bass and drums kept the rhythm and harmony of the song going: Viram Jasani on improvisation in private/public noted such behaviour during performances as “they’re (musicians) not worried about an audience sitting there and this is a time when they really let themselves go” (p15).

Derek Bailey on music improvisation remarks: “At the actual time of performance, the musician does not calculate the procedure that will guide his playing. Rather he plays from a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the purely rational. Under these conditions the player performs not according to the ‘theory of practice’ intuitively by the ‘practice of practice’ wherein the dictates of traditional procedures are integrated with his immediate mood and emotional needs.” (pxi)

I believe there is great truth in this statement as the performer did seem to withdraw within himself to create music based on his own subjective experience. While emotively connecting with the music he added his own interpretation to what he felt in the present moment. To conclude while both concerts had contrasting musical styles, the electroacoustic of Dolby versus the New Orleans Blues styling of Rab McCullough both displayed a high level of musical knowledge in the context of their idioms. I believe that successful improvisation within idioms is much as I have said before up to practice tempered with experience and moderation because within popular genre music the role of much improvisation as I have discovered is to complement the piece and bring it to a higher level musically for the performer and psychologically/emotionally for the audience.

Greg Hamilton

All references from: “Improvisation it’s Nature and Practice in Music” by Derek Bailey ©1992 2nd Edition. 1st published circa 1980. Internet resources:

http://www.thomasdolby.com/

http://www.tmdrfan.com/

http://www.myspace.com/thomasdolby

http://youtube.com/watch?v=ys7EpQ9tFi4

http://youtube.com/watch?v=GHDq0rDCfgI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tJC50rFIK0&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mP7wMcf_9wA&feature=related

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Two concerts which couldn’t be much further apart in terms of genre, yet both included large amounts of the mysterious process we call ‘Improvisation’:

Atau Tanaka and his completely unpredictable BioMuse vs. the psychedelic delights of the Cosmic Debris Music concert.

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Should the concept of a standard musical performance be maintained, challenged, or removed entirely? Nearly everyone can close their eyes and imagine a concert of some variety – performers come, play a few songs which follow a specified setlist, and then the concert is over. The setlist is of course pre-determined and pre-written, and in many cases the audience is familiar with all or most of the songs performed. Improvisation offers a refreshing break from this standard. Some musical groups, such as Asima, may throw one improvised song into a concert to branch out – others, such as Disparate Bodies, rely predominantly on improvisation, using scores to define only structure.

Asima are a musical ensemble with a strong focus on vocals and percussion, though also featuring some pitch-oriented instruments. Many of their instruments were quite experimental, such as their use of a terra cotta pot as a drum. They also initiated the majority of their pieces with a small box creating a drone sound in the background, over which the entire piece was established.

Their performance, which featured mostly pre-arranged songs, did contain one improvisation. This improvisation was linked in quite clearly with the general sound which the audience had already come to associate with Asima – probably influenced by the musical timbres of the instrumentation available, as well as the band’s general tendency towards their own sound. Musical features of note were the presence of vocal dissonance (one was brought to wonder whether it was intentional, but it added quite a bit of tension to the piece and it can only be assumed that it was), some well-placed rests among the entire group, and the use of many notes which followed a different scale from the rest of the piece. Their method of communication was relatively standard, and it was often clear that the individuals were cueing each other through eye contact.

Eye contact, meanwhile, was not an option for the performance entitled ‘Disparate Bodies’. This performance was a collection of four pieces (sound studies) which placed far more emphasis on improvisation than Asima’s performance. ‘Disparate Bodies’ was a novelty of a performance – it was going on in three places (Northern Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and performers in all three locations were communicating via a network. The network turned out to be not only a medium for communication, but added so many factors to the piece that it arguably became an instrument in its own right.

The importance of improvisation varied between the pieces, yet was important to all four of them. A unifying theme of the entire performance was that of the restrictions set by the network. Network delays established subtle differences between timing cues. A very interesting factor was that the physical absence of many of the other performers removed the possibility for cueing through eye contact – meaning all communication had to be enacted either aurally (the most prevalent) or interactively (which was principal in part three, the synthesized piece being composed live through software). In the case of the first and last piece, however, ambiguous scores (resembling modern art) were followed which facilitated unity between the performers.

Overall, ‘Disparate Bodies’ was a very novel and interesting approach to a performance and made use of technology to an extent which would previously have been unimaginable to me. Where Asima made use of unusual instruments, Disparate Bodies took classical instruments and explored them in new ways over a new medium. While Disparate Bodies’ approach was the more cutting-edge of the two, these factors ended up defining the performances, with the music following them appropriately. Perhaps this is the future of music.

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Since starting my time at Queen’s studying Music Technology, I have attended a large number of concerts in which the use of improvisation was apparent. An example would be the Olaf Rupp concert in the SARC building, however I decided, as a fan of both bands, and as it seemed to be more of a challenge given the nature of the shows, to compare the use of improvisation in two concerts I attended as a fan as well as a musician; Motion City Soundtrack in the Temple Bar Music Centre, Dublin and NOFX in the Carling Academy, Liverpool. As a huge fan of both bands, I was excited to see how the live performances would differ from the recorded tracks.
The Motion City Soundtrack show was definitely the least interesting in terms of improvisation. They stuck relatively closely to the recorded versions, however there were some moments of improvisation which stuck out in my head. During the song, ‘Time Turned Fragile,’ in which there is an extended outro, which they played in full off the record, but then developed into an improvised instrumental section. It featured all the members of the band improvising on their respective instruments [drums, rhythm and lead guitars, bass guitar, synth]. The synth really came into it’s own during this part of the show, using various effects to create a massive array of sounds from such a small instrument! This section did not seem to have a very set structure and appeared to be very random and thrown together on-the-spot so to speak.
A second section that was improvised was their entrance back onto the stage for their encore. Their synth player, Jesse Johnson, came onstage alone and played a chordal piano piece which seemed to have quite a specific structure laid out in terms of chords and bars etc. He was then joined, however, by drummer, Tony Thaxton, who played a series of improvised beats and fills to complement the keyboard part. They were gradually joined by the rest of the band, including vocal harmonies, throughout a gradual crescendo which led up to a held E chord, which then introduced the first song of their encore, ‘This Is For Real’.
The improvisation in this concert was few and far between, and this is probably natural, considering the nature of the performers and the fact that fans have bought tickets to see their favourite songs performed live, and witness the subtle differences between the live and recorded versions, as opposed to concentrating hard on an improvised piece of music which they need to fully concentrate on. However, the moments of improvisation that the band produced during the concert were certainly not disappointing and most certainly kept the attention of the audience. This could be partly down to the fact that they chose specific parameters to set themselves, for example, tempo: keeping an upbeat tempo could possibly keep the attention of a largely teenage audience more effectively than a slow dirge-like piece which may bore them to a certain extent.
Moving on to the second concert that I attended, NOFX in the Carling Academy in Liverpool. With their reputation as a punk rock band who can actually play their instruments, I was interested to see what surprises they would have in store for the audience. I was not disappointed.
Indeed, the band started with an improvised piece, in a jazz style, featuring guitarist El Hefe on trumpet, a feature that would return throughout the show. While there were definitely specific parameters set in terms of key, dynamics [the whole piece was a crescendo], and tempo, the trumpet line was most definitely improvised. The drum part was a simple swing beat, and the rhythm guitar line was a 12 bar blues pattern repeated. The bass line was improvised to a certain extent in that he played within the chord structure but chose different notes from within the scale to create a walking bassline. The trumpet line then was the melody line, and he played with tied notes and syncopation throughout to create an interesting contrast with the underlying standard blues/jazz rhythm section.
A second example of improvisation was when they played a fast rendition of an acoustic song off their latest EP called ‘You’re Wrong’. The recorded version features just acoustic guitar and vocals. The live version they performed was with the full band and at the trademark NOFX ‘million-miles-an-hour’ speed. This was one of the highlights of the entire show and one of the most captivating examples of improvisation I have ever witnessed.
A third and final example of improvisation was towards the end of their set, when they were joined onstage by their support band for what turned out to be a jamming session. The nine musicians onstage created a piece of music covering a vast pitch, tempo and dynamic range that lasted for about seven or eight minutes, a long time in terms of their usual two and a half minute punk rock songs.
In conclusion then, the two concerts were not the most conventional of settings for capturing improvisation, but I realised that this made me hone in more on what was going on improvisationally, rather than trying to sum up two entire improvised performances in one essay. It was interesting to see how the two bands used their own genres of music in different ways and pushed the boundaries of those genres to create a new piece of music which in some ways fitted into those preconceptions and in others were way outside the box.

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