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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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A review comparing the use of improvisation in two extraordinarily diverse performances: the first a jazz band playing at the Rotterdam, one of the oldest bars in Belfast; the other a much more modern experimental music group at Queens.

Giant Steps are a standard four piece jazz standards band, featuring drums, double bass, guitar and saxophonist Lewis Smith, performing that night with guest singer Bronagh Mullan (who represented Ireland in the Eurovision song contest in 1999, but has since found a love for jazz).

QUBEnsemble, who need no introduction, involve themselves in a wide variety of experimental styles, mostly involving some sort of improvisation. On this particular occasion the Ensemble was split up into groups of three or four musicians, each group being given short piece of sheet music and a page from a magazine for inspiration and told to come up with a performance based on those two things. The groups were given around twenty minutes to prepare, after which a very diverse range of interpretations emerged.

The use of improvisation by the jazz group, although very creative and expressive, was much more reserved and carefully structured than that of the QUBE groups. The jazz group performed pre-arranged songs, with improvisation taking the form of one instrument soloing over the chord progression of the song. The boundaries for this improvisation were quite clear- the tempo of the song was regular, the chords of the song were clearly repeated, and only one member of the band would be improvising at any one time. Also, due to the more traditional nature of the jazz being played, the improvised melodies rarely deviated from the blues scale of the song being played.

The QUBE groups, on the other hand, made much greater use of improvisation, each group imposing its own particular boundaries and guidelines as to how the performance should be carried out. Some groups, for example, took short groups of notes from the sheet music and repeated them at different times, improvising timing and dynamics, rather than the particular choice of notes. Another group improvised without any boundaries, with each band member picking a particular note of a chord and sustaining it when they felt the free improvisation should end. Still another group used the narrative of the magazine to structure their performance, improvising within that structure.

Despite the very different approaches to structuring improvisation between the jazz band and QUBE groups, all the musicians involved were creative and confident enough to produce interesting and imaginative music within the guidelines that were set. Therefore I feel that the resulting performances, although very different, were both intellectually and emotionally engaging, and as a result could be considered to be high quality music, and definitely worth listening to.

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Many world-class improvisers played around Queen’s University during this semester, from individual performers like Olaf Rupp and Atau Tanaka to group performers like Faint and MSG.

This review shall compare and contrast the performances of Faint and MSG. A group improvisation is much more difficult to perform tastefully as there are many more factors outside each individual performer’s control which greatly affect the performance. Even in a traditional performance, where the music usually has a strict structure, many factors can drastically alter the show. In an improvised show, these problems are further compounded by in-the-moment choices each performer may chose to indulge.

Faint

Faint are a trio consisting of pianist/composer Pedro Rebelo, percussionist/composer Steve Davis and saxophonist Franziska Schroeder who explore the two extremes of musical practice: the ideas of free improvisation and composition for a fixed medium. From an audience member’s point of view, it was very difficult to tell the difference between the two ideas the group wished to explore but arguably that is where the enjoyment comes from. This concert was unlike any other and left a deep impression; from the musical ideas presented, the timbres generated by each performer, the almost telepathic levels of musical communication and the audacity to push the preconceived notions of what it music to its very limits was breathtaking. Each performer used very unconventional methods to play his or her instrument. For example, Pedro paid as much attention to the tones he could reproduce from the insides of his piano as the outside while Franziska employed unusual articulation to emphasis her phrases and Steve chose to play his drum kit with a wide selection of sticks and focused much of his energy on playing the hardware as opposed to the skins of the drums.

This very different approach helped to shape much of the improvisation. From a listener’s perspective it was difficult to tell which parts of the performance had been previously rehearsed and any communication between the band members was too subtle to be noticed. This added a depth of excitement to the proceedings, as it was next to impossible to guess which direction the performance was going to take. This sense of adventure kept the listener enthralled and helped fuel the evening. While this reviewer had no love for the music presented, the extraordinarily level of musicianship, combined with the finely tuned ear and daring nature made for an enthralling show.

While there was some level of communication between the performers and the audience, it was never made clear what the music of the evening was about. There was no hint at a theme or of a musical direction. That said, the music at times felt very dark and foreboding with a great emphasis placed on building tension (through long periods of restrained and unusual playing) followed by a sharp release via frantic and chaotic playing. One unusual part of the show was the use of small amplifiers. Three of these hung down from the ceiling and played a variety of short musical ideas developed by Pedro. Were they meant to add another dimension to the playing or were they used as cues for the performers? Again, while this was unclear, it certainly added to the atmosphere and gave the listener another musical direction to ponder.

For those who missed the show, below is a video link:

http://www.sarc.qub.ac.uk/~prebelo/wp/faint/FaintLive1web.mov?id=43

MSG

MSG is another trio made up of saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa, drummer Chander Sardjoe and acoustic bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Currently praised throughout the world for their virtually unheard Eastern take on jazz music, MSG are artists who are technically brilliant yet musically forceful. They take their name from the first letter of each musician’s surname.

This group also engaged in an improvised performance, but one that was radically different from that of Faint. This was a much more musical affair consisting of a more traditional structure and conventional timbres. There was also a greater focus on each player having their own part to show off their techniques and skill with many of the songs performed having a separate part for each performer to solo. From a listener’s point of view, this made it much easier to identify with the musical structure and work out the possible direction of the piece. While some would argue that with this approach the structure of each song might become predictable, one of the highlights of this performance was how the listener was always kept guessing. While you expected the solo it was never clear when it would happen and each one was radically different in terms of tempo and dynamics.

MSG approached improvisation from a different direction to Faint. While Faint’s performance was arguably entirely improvised, MSG had a more rigid and pre determined structure. Each of their songs had a theme and distinctive cues, which they explained before or after they had finished a piece. From this the audience was able to better understand and appreciate the message the group was trying to put across. The group seemed to improvise with how long they would play for, seemingly until the performer had exhausted their self after a difficult and complex solo demonstrating their talent. While one person was soloing the other performers took their cues from them. Each musician had incredibly quick ears and was able to compliment and predict each phrase produced in the spur of the moment but seemed to know when the person was going to finish leading to the idea of set cues within each solos.

One criticism that could be levelled at the performance was the occasionally directionless solos. For example, the performance ended with a 20-minute drum solo, which, while technically very impressive, left most of the audience bored. Even Mahanthappa seemed to be bored. A striking difference between MGS and Faint’s performance was the level of communication and the way each band member conducted themselves on stage. With Faint, each member was very into the music and concentrated entirely on what they were doing with little acknowledgement of the performers during each piece. With MGS, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves with each member smiling and nodding congratulations at each other after they finished a particularly difficult passage.

In conclusion, both performances showcased incredible musicianship and the many different ways you can approach improvisation; whether it be in a more traditional set manner or in an explorative and daring manner. Both are different ways of expressing an idea and it is entirely up to the listener which they identify with more. It would be interesting to see the two groups perform again to see how similar each improvisation would be. To hazard a guess, Faint’s performance would be completely different each time while MGS would tend to play quite a familiar set.

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The last concert that I attended involving improvisation was believe or not, the Kanye West concert in Belfast. Of course this was a concert with a planned set-list and during most of the night most of the artists involved were playing their set piece on their respective instruments. But there were a number of factors that were quite interesting in the way of improvisation.

The most obvious account for improvisation was during a song called ‘Good Life’. After hearing the piece basically as you would have on the track itself, each artist was allowed to express him or herself individually for around a minute each. The band was made up of: singer/showman/rapper (Kanye West), two backing singers, two rappers, string quartet, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, and a DJ.

When the original version of the song was played each performer kept playing his or her own parts as for a normal verse whilst each musician took over for a solo part. Although each performer may have had a set amount of bars to express within, and each played separately, there was a definite sense that each performer was playing from the heart and had not planned their piece.

Another presence of improvisation during this concert was the performance of a rapper called GLC. After being introduced by the main performer as being a ‘freestyle’ artist, he began to rap over the next song being played. Basically this artist began to rap in time with the song but without any planning of what he was going to do or say. He did so throughout the whole song apart from the chorus, where he was given a break.

Occasionally throughout the concert itself he would throw in his own elements to the song, which are not present in recording. This would have been in the form of short phrases, full lines or even a verse completely improvised on the spot.

Another occurrence of improvisation during the concert was the scratch DJ playing. During all the songs that were performed he would add ‘scratching’ to each. This is pulling a record back and forth over a ‘cut’ of a song to produce a scratch-like sound. It is clear that this was improvisational as scratching is not something which is normally planned.

The final, less significant aspect of the concert that involved improvisation, was the main performer’s crowd interaction. This may have been in the form of an instruction given to the audience, such as ‘put your hands up’ or an action to signify the same thing. Although it is clear that improvisation was not the strongest focus of the event it certainly had a great presence and added something special to the night.

Another event, which I attended was Olaf Rupp’s performance in the SARC building in Queen’s. This was one of the most interesting and odd musical events I have ever been to see. The performer only need one mode through which to express himself and that was through his guitar (which was a nylon string guitar producing a beautiful sound).

During this piece it seems that Olaf was really trying to explore how unusual a sound can be produced from a single guitar. It seemed that everything that he was doing was centred on being different from anyone or anything else. From the sudden change of moods to the variety of playing techniques used, this piece was certainly original.

Most of the piece was quite frantic with quick plucking of notes and extremely quick vibratos. But there was great contrast between these types of sections with slower, sparser sections, which made the piece feel a lot more improvised as some of these changes did not sound very smooth.

His technical ability was nothing but fantastic, which he portrayed trough his wide range of playing techniques, such as: tremolo, bending, sliding along the fret board and most interestingly, his use of the guitar as a percussive instrument. He tapped the body of the guitar and also tapped strings to create different sounds from them.

The piece did not seem to have a specific structure, nor a very good one in my own opinion. It simply moved from moods as such using some ideas that he would go back to in order to keep interest. He had a few scales or tones that he would return to (maybe in order to give him time to think what to do next!), again showing how improvised the piece was.

The feeling he would put into everything he played as beautiful and this, I feel, is an important aspect of improvising while playing music. How the performer feels at the moment of performance has a great impact on how notes, chords or musically ornaments sound to the audience. This is what makes the piece truly different from anything else.

There is clearly a great contrast in the two events I witnessed. But the reason I chose to talk about each was because although they are completely different, both pieces involve improvisation. Olaf Rupp’s performance was a completely improvised piece where as Kanye West’s concert had a planned set of events. This shows us that in every musical event we go to see there is some degree of improvisation, be it structure, melody or even the feeling expressed through a certain instrument, which differentiates it from any other playing of the same piece.

Improvisation does not have a threshold so no performance will ever be the same as any other!

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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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