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During this semester, Andrew Bird and Olaf Rupp performed separately at Queen’s University. The Andrew Bird concert had distinct times when improvisation was a driving force, while the whole of Olaf Rupp’s performance was improvised. The amount and type of improvisation utilized by each performer can be generalized as a set of boundaries, which were chosen by their respective performers, but were also possibly affected by the setting of the concert.

Andrew Bird’s band was composed of a second guitarist/bassist, a drummer/keyboardist, and Bird himself playing mainly guitar and violin. All members were armed with multiple effects units, sequencers, and most importantly delay pedals. Most songs the band performed were tightly structured with verse/chorus sections, but also a long jam either placed in the beginning of the song – to build up to the first verse – or the end of the song – building to a grand finale.

In the jam sections, Bird and his bandmates would layer numerous loops to continue the chord progression or hook and free themselves to improvise with the plethora of secondary instruments around the stage. Bird would often pick up a handheld xylophone and play a jagged melody while whistling in unison or harmony. At one time, he turned to a microphone in the back of the stage to clap and chant “bah bah’s” into the loop, subtly adding to the lush repetition. Sometimes he took a more conventional route and played a violin solo filled with jittery flourishes. The drummer sometimes turned to a drum machine/sequencer to add off-tempo, synthetic beats.

Olaf Rupp’s performance consisted solely of him playing the acoustic guitar. Rupp used a unique style of playing, which consists of a nearly constant flow of short staccato notes, with the strings often not pressed completely onto the fretboard, causing an inharmonic sound. With this basis of playing, Rupp experimented constantly with different movements of his hands and fingers, placement of the guitar, and other variables.

As a solo performer, Rupp was able to improvise everything about his piece. He set nearly no bounds to the type of music he would create, and seemed to use the present mood and sound he produced in order to decide what he would lead himself to play next. This sometimes caused abrupt change of plucking speed, slowing the pace drastically to a more sparse sound. Other times, his fretting hand would gradually make its way up the neck to stay there for a while and experiment with higher pitched sounds. The only limit was his choice of instrument.

In contrast, Andrew Bird set many restrictions on his band’s improvisation including key, tempo, and sections of improvisation. This type of boundary allowed for a slower progression of ideas since it prevents large variance between consecutive concerts. The band members did not watch each other very intently other than to start and stop a song, which made their improvisations quite separate, and the musicians rarely played off each other’s ad-libbed ideas. This caused the jam sections to stay in a predictable direction and prevented any divergent experimentation. However, the jams seemed to have a predetermined way of evolving and changing course to avoid monotony, which left most improvisation quarantined to instrument choice, syncopation, tone, and secondary melody.

The set of constraints each performer chose for his improvisation may have been affected by his respective audience. Olaf Rupp’s concert was free to all, and set in a proper performance space in the middle of the day. This atmosphere attracted an audience that studies music and looks for new experiences (also the lack of admission charge allows one to risk going to an unsatisfactory performance more easily). With this type of audience, Rupp had little pressure to conform to any style or structure. At the Speakeasy where Andrew Bird performed, the admission charge was £10, which may have weeded out casual concertgoers, leaving specific fans or friends of fans. In this setting, Bird was received with the expectation to play his popular songs and give a generally accessible performance.

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