On a hot, humid night in New York City way back in 1997 I went to see a performance by (Pulitzer Prize winning) saxophonist Ornette Coleman (pictured above), reunited with his original trio after 30 years. Before the concert I was familiar with his music, but had not really listened that much to it. But that one concert was absolutely amazing and I was completely blown away by how Coleman performed and interacted with his group and special guests. It was a life-altering moment, and I dedicated my life from that point on to exploring both traditional and cutting-edge types of improvisation – as a musician, and intellectually as an ethnomusicologist. The next day (to make a long story short) I became Mr. Coleman’s student, and have since been exploring and creating freely improvised music.
After all these years of studying and working I believe that an organized study of freely improvised music is not only beneficial to all musicians, but can be an extremely useful and deeply enjoyable individual (or collective) activity that anybody can participate in. Thus, in this post, I will begin by describing what it is, and then explain how you can begin to do it yourself.
Free improvisation is actually a fairly loose term covering a wide array of people and practices. Whatever you think you can turn into interesting or beautiful spontaneous musical sounds can be called free improvisation. Freely making up a melody and then improvising around it is also free improvisation, if you alter the melody and underlying chords as you go along. I have encountered young and old musicians all over the world making freely improvised music in many ways under many names. Much of it has been contemporary solo saxophone or saxophone/drum music (my favorite kind of free improvisation), but often it can be very experimental, or “avant-garde.”
For example, in Kobe, Japan I saw a man attempting to coax spirits out of four radios arranged in a square, the squawking of static mixed with faint signals being his music. While performing in Reykjavik, I heard of a group of avant-garde rock musicians that took readings of a famous classical composer’s vital signs and turned them into an album of improvisations. But these are fairly extreme examples. The usual occurrence of freely improvised music is within more conservative collectives and live performance situations, and in many styles other than jazz or alternative rock music.
So what do you do when you decide to “just play?” As composer Joannie Ing once asked me “What is a successful free improvisation, and how would it be measured?” Heavy questions indeed! How would a beginning free improviser learn to create and interact in this manner? If you are practicing by yourself, then the following activities will be a good way to start discovering interesting new ways to make music with your instrument. Though it may seem frivolous and not really “serious” at times, these methods have led to the creation of some very profound, successful works of music over many decades, and I urge you to seriously consider the following before judging their effects and usefulness prematurely.
Begin by first exploring your instrument purely as a sound maker. What does it sound like when you tap it? Breathe into it without blowing. Speak into it like a mega phone. Does the wood or metal create any interesting sounds if you flap your fingers up and down on the keys without blowing? How about the sounds the clarinet makes when you slightly lift your fingers while blowing? Could you make a composition out of that?
Next, begin making a list of qualities you like in music. Some examples are: softness, darkness, silence, brightness, slow, fast, breathiness, slowing down, speeding up, and such. Once you have a list that you like, put it on your music stand and begin trying to make these qualities happen in music without trying to play in any particular key. If that sounds too unorganized to you, try and do the same exercise with a scale, a chord, or small melody that you invent off the top of your head. An interesting chromatic scale to experiment with is the symmetrical dominant, a series of whole and half steps, starting with a half step [C C# D# E F# G A Bb].
Remember: this exercise is about experimentation, not how perfectly or “correctly” you can do it. Also, don’t be worried or saddened if you don’t like what you create. The joy is in the attempt, and the thrill of discovery – and no one is thrilled all the time! The whole process reaps many musical rewards for those that become comfortable with exploring their own unknown musical wilderness.
Once you have tried that, move on to the next exercise, which is doing the exact same thing, only not looking at a list … but a picture. Find any picture that you like and put it on your music stand. Now, try and spontaneously make music that you feel describes the picture or music that explains the picture somehow. A picture specifically designed to include, or specifically for, improvisation is called a graphic score.
For an interesting study of graphic or visual score improvisation, go online and look at examples of graphic scores. To perform a graphic score, just look at the overall design and shape of the score (lines, dots, shapes, clustering, density) and try to make music based on how you think the score “sounds.” It can be a more complicated activity than that, but to begin simply interpret the image as a set of sounds inspired by what you see: kind of like a musical Rorschach test. A few minutes of improvising based on my score CHOLLOBHAT (pictured above) will open you up to an interesting world of structure and improvisation you may not have experienced before.
(Note: the use of graphic scores seems like a new thing, but the use of images to make music is actually very old. The picture below is an example of a (Coptic) musical score using circles and colors to represent musical sounds, created in Egypt in the year 400 C.E!)
Then move on to actual movie clips. Create your own improvised soundtrack to any one of your favorite DVDs by turning off all sound, or look up classic silent films online, and make your accompaniment to them. For a fun time, I have used clips of Buster Keaton to improvise along with, both at live events, or in my improvisation clinics around the world.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Free improvisation can be a learning resource, a compositional tool, a social activity, and many other things. Whatever you need it for, it can be used, and it has been and continues to be a valuable guide to the study of creativity and human resourcefulness. And if you are interested in hearing some classic examples of free improvisation check out: Out To Lunch (Eric Dolphy), The Shape Of Jazz To Come (Ornette Coleman), Playing (Old And New Dreams), Universal Consciousness (Alice Coltrane), The Major Works Of John Coltrane (John Coltrane), Live At Wilisau (Dewey Redman), and others.
Ornette Coleman and I freely improvising a duet