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I recently attended the exhibition of two pieces, both of which relied on improvisation to, in one case, create and, in the other case, extend the music and sonic textures which were made during the performance.

The first of the two performances was in one of Wednesday’s classes when different groups were asked to play Dr Paul Stapleton’s wonderful and weird modular instrument(s). The other was a performance by a band called Bluetree.

The first performance was intriguing because it moved the impromptu performers out of their normal sphere of instrumentation. As a percussionist, I felt quite at home with the modular nature of the instrument because, especially within an orchestral context, a percussionist can be asked to play many instruments within a piece. The most interesting thing about the performance was the way in which the performers were able to interpret not only the bizarre instrument, or the different approaches to playing, but mainly their contextual sensitivity.

Bearing in mind that none of the performers had a previous technical foothold on the instrument, the spontaneity of what ensued was probably the piece’s greatest strength, and in some instances, also its weakness. Where two players were bowing the stringed feet of the instrument, at times there was not only a tonal, but also a significant dynamic congruity, where the bowing and “counter-bowing” formed a sonic floor upon which the piece evolved.

By stark comparison, Bluetree’s performance contained fairly rigidly structured songs, but with scope for improvised interpretations. At the end of their set, the six band members began an improvised section wherein each member of the group was able to participate in a “musical conversation”. Using more structured methods of improvisation, such as call and response, imitation or sequence, but also allowing free reign, their improvisation was just as valid as a piece with no pre-defined structure.

Both approaches to improvisation call upon a technical proficiency (at least to a moderate degree) but also rely on the performer’s willingness to experiment. Arguably, the first performance allowed, nay demanded experimentation on the part of the performer, which allowed a new sonic style to evolve. The metallic timbre of the instrument as a whole provided, for me, a new sound which was unlike any other form of commerical music, or even music which is improvised on conventional instruments.

In both performances, the musicians were very aware of the other sounds or melodies being woven together. I find that this allows the audience to engage more with the music, as I struggle to interpret music which is played without congruity and a team dynamic.

By way of conclusion, I ask a question: Is a structured improvisation actually improvisation? Does a repeated phrase (for example) not, in essence, replace true improvisation, or can these musical elements which have previously shaped Western music still play an important part in improvised performances? I argue that improvisation is more about the music you feel, than any idealistic “genre” of musical experimentation.

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