Archive for the ‘improvisation’ Category

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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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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This review looks at performances from ‘The Jahm Band’, a psychedelic, funk-jazz fusion group based in North Antrim and singer songwriter ‘Tom McRae’ who are two performing artists/group who share the same or similar (self-proclaimed) chaotic approach to improvisation within their perspective music/sounds. However within the context of a live performance, this same attitude towards extemporization within their art form yields vastly different results. So at what point in the creative process do similar foundations become streets apart?

‘The Jahm Band’ (Are Ye Jahmin’ or Wha?!)

The Jahm Band are a collection of musicians who play ‘funky, groovy transcendental hoodoo music’ which was originally set up by Will Hawkins, Ciaran Laverty and Dave Hoy a few years ago. ‘The Jahm Band’ is now made up of six fantastic musicians from around Northern Ireland.

The music of ‘The Jahm Band’ is exactly as the name suggests, a series of ‘jahms’, each with the fundamental component of being primarily improvised (within a very loosely fixed medium) which is defined by the quality of musicians within the group as well as a love for what they are creating.

Primarily in hindsight of this performance I would suggest that this is a group of individuals who share the ideal that their music is ‘played by a group of musicians who choose one another’s company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is performed’*. This is evident in the simple fact that at several intervals throughout the performance, extended friends of the group (myself included) were invited on stage for a brief ‘jahm’ as the atmosphere/mood of the music/venue compelled the group to do so. Surely this introduced a substantial element of free improvisation as control was passed ‘not to chance, but to other musicians’*, whether or not said persons were aware of any fixed mediums. This isn’t to say that the group lacked direction and required the participation of the audience, indeed quite the opposite. In relation to the inspiration for improvisation, the flamenco guitarist Paco Pena said that ‘anything which has art in it would have an effect. For example, the way people move – you could see someone moving gracefully and that inspires you’. I believe this to be the case when concerning ‘The Jahm Band’. Whilst the main protagonist of the group (Will Hawkins – Guitar) is heavily influenced by the music of Robert Fripp (which was evident at points in the performance) whose music embraces ‘instant creation’, however when the audience began to ‘get their GRooVe on’ this had a very definite effect on the group, spurring them on. This like the cameo musicians served to inspire the group giving their ‘transcendental mission’ momentum!

The improvisational structure I feel was dictated by the members of the group as individuals acting within the institution that is ‘The Jahm Band’. Phasing and ‘Grooves’ would be exchanged with band members and opposed to repeating what has been ‘said’ created their own phrases within the ‘Grooves’ allowing each piece to explored, treating every error as an ‘unintentional rightness’. Needless to say this practice (in order to be carried out effectively) requires considerably high levels of communication which in some cases took the form of whispers, nods and in some cases it was almost possible to see the musicians passing notes, ideas and responsibility across the stage through the way the notes phrases were played and where emphasis was placed at defining moment of the performance.

If was definitely one of these gigs that had the audience holding their breath at every stager and fall, at every sustain and trill, and at the final crescendo the release of the group was shared by the audience which for me defined the special relationship between an audience and improvised music.

Tom McRae

Tom McRae is recognized for his intelligent and sensitive song writing, his haunting vocals and the energy and warmth which he puts into his live gigs, which needless to say is all that was presented and them some at ‘The Limelight’ on Monday 12th November. The gig was apart of his European tour to promote his recently released 3rd studio album ‘King of Cards’. His influences as expressed on www.myspace.com/tommcrae are ‘Gravity, poverty, some childhood issues, and Burl Ives’ which gives some indication of his character as opposed to his music which could be described as being somewhat bleak and depressing. This contradiction does however highlight that (in my opinion) he has a real sense of humour.

Opposed to the performance of ‘The Jahm Band’, any musical improvisation that takes place is rigidly defined by his fixed medium which in this case are the songs from his latest and previous albums which people have come to hear.

After the show I had the opportunity of asking him how he approaches or perceives his use of improvisation within his own music, to which he replied that one factor (similar to that of ‘The Jahm Band’) is that he and the rest of the band enjoy what they are playing. This appears to be a common train of thought with improvisers the world over, as Derek Bailey says in ‘Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music’, ’don’t be afraid of being wrong, just afraid of being uninteresting’ which to me suggests enjoying yourself.

The performance was much more than on of a musical nature, it could also be compared with that of a stand-up comedy act, which in my opinion was second to none. His use of ‘ad-libbing’ to engage the audience both between and during songs allowed for the audience, I believe, to have a definite presence in the performance as performers. The constant interjection of question and answer between audience and performer was very reminiscent of the improvisation that is employed in Rock music as defined my Derek Bailey.

One final key element of this performance which I found particularly compelling was that, although it says on the ticket ‘Tom McRae’ he went to lengths to introduce the rest of the band to the audience (Oli and Olli, Johnny Sound, Stevie Guitars) and included them in his interaction with the crowd. This allowed much of the bands personalities to come forth making them more than simply ‘the men behind the man’ but equals within the performance along with Tom and the audience. The familiarity made the band members embellishments on the original themes much more evident bring improvisation to the forefront of the performance which I believe made the experience all the more engaging and entertaining. The bands relaxed and jovial approach to the performance turned songs of a serious nature into one of light-hearted camaraderie which I believe to be the result of the group adapting (dare I say improvising) to the mood of the audience making them much more accessible.

Although the actual implementation of a similar idea of improvisation, in relation to these two performances yielded very different results is not to suggest that one was ‘better’ than the other, just different. Speaking in strictly musical terms the improvisation of Tom McRae was very rigidly defined, not going beyond the confines of the set pieces, were as The Jahm Band in some cases even went beyond the tempered scale of the West (due to the wizardry of one Will Hawkins).

As an avid supporter of local music (music from Ireland) I am compelled to vote in favour of ‘The Jahm Band’, that is if this were a competition, however I feel that both performances captured what I believe to be possibly the single most important factor of any improvisation and that is to play with you heart as opposed to your head, because as Steve Howe said ‘if you try to closely to look at inspiration it disappears… Untangible’!

Darren McLaughlin

*All references and quotes were taken from:

Improvisation – It’s Nature and Practice in Music. Derek Bailey




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As far as I understand it when a computer generates a random number it uses the current time value from its built-in clock as the starting point (seed) in a mathematical formula which generates reasonably randomised values.  They’re not truly random because if the formula is started again at the exact same moment, resulting in the same seed being used, the same result will be generated but the formula. 

Whilst this problem is avoided by the handiness of the linear nature of time and us therefore never repeating the same moment, it does raise interesting issues.  Will computer generated improvised music (generated solely by the computer, not just preprogrammed synthesis) ever be so convincing that we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference?  Will nature of programming and randomness in computers allow them to?

Algorithms such as A.L.I.C.E. simulate responses to enquiries in a somewhat realistic way, but fall far short of earning a place at the table of your ideal dozen-strong dinner party.  Will similar algorithms in the future be able to improvise music in the same way they might improvise conversation?  And if they can, how capable will they be of taking a leading role in the music by with a sudden impulse decision (or in their terms random decision)?

Relevant Wikipedia articles:






Any thoughts? Preferably in an over-the-top grandiose Tomorrow’s World style?

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A comparison of the Disparate Bodies network performance (29th Nov 2007) and FAINT (11th Oct 2007), both in the Sonic Lab at SARC.

by Daniel Gillen

I find the Sonic Lab a bit disorienting at the best of times, due to a fairly debilitating fear of heights and fascination with shiny things which light up.  Combine this with a facet of music which to me was at that point entirely unexplored and attempting to review a gig for the first time made the FAINT performance a fairly daunting event to attend.  This was a stark contrast to my attitude when attending the Disparate Bodies performance which I attended almost entirely on a spur of the moment decision in order to see what the differences between it and FAINT would be, having originally intended to use another performance entirely to write about here.

This difference in attitude naturally resulted in experiences which were at odds with each other.  I was more readily able to accept the surreal aspects of Disparate Bodies than I had been at FAINT.  Surreal aspects such as secondlife.com’s alternate reality and the real-time interaction between musicians across a continent.  Whereas with FAINT, for an hour they improvised a simply staggering range of timbres and dynamics, creating such unusual sounds that at times it was hard to know who was making which sound and how they achieved it.  Bizarre techniques, such as Davis using a violin bow on the drum rims and Schroeder playing both a kazoo and a sax at the same time were used to great effect, generating a myriad of what ought to be dissonant sounds and yet somehow worked together brilliantly.  This same manic energy was present in the Disparate Bodies performance, but I was ready for it this time.

I think the same thought process can be applied to the thought process we as Performance Workshop students operate with when presented with the task of improvising music.  I know I all too often suffer from indecisiveness and ‘sheep’ syndrome and make few attempts to try to play something completely different or challenging.  By making affirmed decisions about what and how to play, much more is conveyed to the audience and the performance is made far more interesting.

The very nature of a distributed performance will likely mean the performers involved will have fewer opportunities to play together due to geographical separation.  Whilst a new slant on improvisation might make for some interesting and fresh sounds, there is always the possibility the performance will suffer as a result of the musicians’ inability to ‘read’ each other.

The location of the performers had a few other surprising consequences, chief among which was the predisposition present in the audience of Disparate Bodies to listen primarily to the artists present in the room.  At FAINT, the three performers had fairly equal prominence and dynamic shifts by an individual were much more noticeable to me then those of the performers in Hamburg and Graz in Disparate Bodies. 

Perhaps this concentration on the sound made by what we can see with our own eyes instead of on a TV screen is a side effect of TV itself? The audio of characters and/or actions on a screen in films are normally louder than ambient noise and back-round music added.  A teacher from my old school complained of this same trend in society; of how music and sounds are deemed less important than what we can see.  This was an unusual thing to hear an art teacher complain about, but I agreed with him.

There does seem to be a pattern in that modern media forms are becoming more and more visual-orientated.  Even what were once solely audio devices in the form of the telephone network have been usurped by text and picture messaging on mobile phones and e-mails and (how appropriate) blogs.  Its is entirely understandable too, as all the methods stated previously allows time for consideration of the response to be given and a ‘smart alec’ quip can be thought up in the time it takes to write a text or e-mail.

This is, of course, entirely opposite to improvised music.  There should be as little predetermined as possible. As much as I like the idea of a network performance, my mind seems almost unchangeably wired to want to see performers ‘in the flesh’.  It’s the reason why I would go see a band play live even if somewhat ropey rather than listen to the album at home or, perhaps more fittingly, watch them on YouTube.  An Mp3 player is to me more technically impressive than a guitar plugged into a Vox, and in the same way there was so many intriguing elements to the distributed improvisation in its implementation compared with having FAINT play together live.

I walked away from Disparate Bodies amazed at what I had seen.  I preferred FAINT because I walked away amazed at what I heard.  The tight-nit understanding between the members of FAINT was intangible, and as such technology was unable to recreate it, making all the difference.

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Check this out: http://music.guardian.co.uk/video/2007/nov/28/vegetable.orchestra.
Definitely an improvisation worth considering. This may give you new ideas about instruments.
I have seen them live in Belfast.
They were great.

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