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Over the past 3 months, I have attended a number of concerts in Belfast by a variety of different artists. Although this may not seem strange, and in fact is common within many of my fellow Music Technology students, there has been one noticeable difference in the way that I have appreciated each show. I attribute this largely to the study we have been carrying out with regard to improvisation and its use within the performance of music. I have learned that improvisation is a tool which allows a musician to connect with their audience, in a way that simply isn’t possible otherwise. It is this newfound appreciation of improvisation that has inspired me to review the following two concerts.

Towards the start of the semester, I attended a concert in Belfast at which the Rab McCullough Blues Band played. Coming from a rock and blues background, this was something that I was quite familiar with. A lot of blues artists share the same repertoire of classic tunes, which have been performed as a staple of live gigs for many years. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting anything different from this gig, despite hearing and reading reports to say that this band was something special (even Eric Clapton has favourably commented upon the playing on Rab McCullough). Although many of the expected tunes were played, the way in which improvisation played a part was a standout factor which attracted and subsequently kept my attention. One of the more obvious uses of improvisation was in the guitar solos, where, given the standard blues backdrop of a I-IV-V chord progression, Rab would take the lead and play a completely improvised solo. As well as staying in the key of the song, some unfamiliar chromatic notes were also added tastefully for effect, as Rab instantaneously communicated his musical thoughts to the audience using his guitar and amplifier. As well as his improvised solo style, the standard I-IV-V chord structures were augmented with a superb manipulation of dynamic range by the whole band. On the guitarist’s nod, the drummer and bass player together were able to alter the overall volume, tempo, structure and feel of the music to the desired level. As a listener, I could tell that both were experimenting as much as was possible within the set boundaries of blues music. What is normally viewed as quite a limited style of music was being flogged before my very eyes, with many of the classic songs taking on a whole new character.

Another concert I attended was the performance at SARC by German guitarist Olaf Rupp. I think this concert will stick out in the minds of all who attended it, an assumption well supported by the sheer volume of discussion about his performance by myself and others. Olaf is a virtuoso improviser, who plays his music with an acoustic guitar in a manner which I had never before witnessed. One of the ways in which Olaf’s improvisations differed entirely from Rab McCullough’s is that the latter contained some structure, while the former had next to none. A flurry of notes, both natural and muted, harmonics and various other percussive and rhythmic effects constituted the nature of Olaf’s performance. His astounding technical prowess was complemented with the ability to flawlessly take his music wherever he wanted. In his performance, which lasted over 20 minutes, hardly a single phrase was repeated in a similar manner to the last. Even the way in which he played was improvised, in that the positions of both of his hands changed frequently, as did the way in which he combined the playing of the strings with the percussive elements of his guitar body. There were absolutely no boundaries in his music, and I dare say that the next time I see him, the concert will be a completely different entity to the one he played at SARC, perhaps even unrecognisably so. His music is improvisation in its purest form.

Although his playing consisted mostly of a tirade of notes as outlined above, Olaf did however show a large degree of control in his playing. This was something which I could relate to the first concert I reviewed, where the players in the Rab McCullough Blues Band were able to employ control in a similarly effortless manner. Olaf’s performance was improv-based, whereas Rab’s employed it to expand a common style of music and bring it to a new level. Both Olaf and Rab were able to keep the audience on a knife edge, attentions fixed on the way in which their music was played with such feeling and emotion. Something which became clear to me about the two artists is that without improvisation, both would struggle to achieve recognition as musicians in the same way that they have. In fact, I’d more than likely be reviewing two different concerts; such is the contribution of improvisation to their reputation. Out of the two, I preferred the first, as I found Olaf’s performance to be lacking in convention to the extent that it was uncomfortable to listen to at times. Rab’s performance not only contained a high standard of improvisation, but the way in which he used it as part of the traditional blues theme and in a musically pleasing manner was something that, as a listener, I very much enjoyed.

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