Chromatic Improvisation And The Art of Wu-Fa.



When I mention the word ‘chromatic,’ to young musicians they most often think of the chromatic “scale,” merely running up and down their instrument in half steps. But the world of chromaticism is much more creative and complex than that, so in this post I would like to share with you one particular method I use to improvise and compose chromatic music. Before I do so, it is important to understand where I am coming from conceptually or aesthetically when I talk about such things.

In my studies of music and art I have been most influenced by Japan, and have spent a major part of my life studying Japanese aesthetic culture. But in this case, my studies of Chinese aesthetic culture inform my conceptual approach to chromaticism.

The ancient Chinese masters often used related terms to discuss form and structure in art. The most significant of these are what I call the “Three Fa-s.” The first is ku-fa, translated as “bone means.” This refers to the various structural requirements and considerations necessary to create truly masterful works. But the goal was not the mastery of purely formal properties of painting. Their greater goal was to create works that captured the nature of form, the very essence of structure: ku-ch’i, “bone spirit.” This ku-ch’i speaks to what is “above shapes” (Li), its universal principle(s). And through the expression of Li, they would achieve a natural mastery that was far beyond structure, arriving at a freedom from method (liao-fa) so natural and effortless it seemed like no method at all (wu-fa). Indeed, the great masters of any art and music create in such a manner.

So, to allow for chromatic flexibility (wu-fa) while having something structural to study (ku-fa), I use rows of chromatic tone sequences (see image below). These are varying combinations of the 12 chromatic half steps available in standardized Western music, set in rows. I also use combinations of both semi-tones and quarter-tones, but as most Western saxophonists for example have not studied micro-tonal music, I will stick to semi-tonal tonal rows in this instance. Although some intervallic repetition in such an exercise is natural, this system guarantees enough variety to ensure you don’t fall into instinctual, repetitive patterns. It trains your reflexes and mind without limiting your vocabulary to pre-rehearsed riffs and phrases. By moving beyond fixed scales and chords, you can develop the ability to literally play anything without hesitation, without using conscious memory.

Tone Rows

To start creating these tone rows, I cut out twelve little paper squares and write the tone names on them. Then, I throw the squares up in the air, collect them at random off the floor, and write down their order. And, if a couple of intervals repeat from the line before, I just change their order. There are probably more efficient ways to create these rows, but I find the whole process kind of fun: something interesting to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon. And if you get tired or bored after a couple pages of these, you can always take a couple of the rows, reverse them from back to front, and put them further down the page.

So now that we have some rows, there are a number of things we can do to practice improvising chromatic ideas. Using the first three pitches from the first row of the image (B F# C), we can start by playing the first note then improvise/pick a note nearby, doing this for each tone in the row. Thus, we end up playing something like this: {B C# F# E C D…]. Go slowly so you can have the time to improvise the extra pitches without stumbling or feeling rushed. This is not about speed, but rather developing the ability to play any sequence of notes at random without hesitation. Then, when this is comfortable for you, improvise two notes between the written pitches, using random intervals, e.g. [B D Eb, F# A B, C B A…]. Then, move on to three and four notes, always making sure that you go slowly enough that you are not panicked or stumbling forward. Then when you have done this, move on to doing alternating sequences up and down so you do not get in the habit of always going in one direction. Switch up the direction, and try keeping track of it, for example two notes up, then one down: [B C Eb E, F# G Ab B, C A G# G…].

At first it will be easier to do this without a metronome. It is most important to be able to improvise these structures easily, adding time afterwards. Then, when you use the metronome, start by playing each tone on the beat (quarter note = 70). Once this is easy, move the metronome up a few clicks until you are playing at medium speed. Then move the metronome back down to where you can play eighth notes easily, each beat consisting of one written note from the row and one improvised note. Go slow and do it comfortably without stumbling. Then when you are completely comfortable with this, repeat the process with an eighth note triplet on each beat: one written note from the row, and two improvised notes. Then do this with four sixteenth notes and finally a sixteenth note quintuplet. As you are doing this keep track of the base metronome markings you are doing each of the note groupings at, and try to move each up a click at a time, playing with clarity and ease. Keeping track of your progress will also guarantee you see clear results, which builds confidence and reduces procrastination.

This exercise is designed to be a way of combining organization with chromatic spontaneity; just letting your instincts fly without hesitation. And, even spending just 15 minutes a day on the process will guarantee great results within days. Don’t forget to invent your own exercises too, and play around with the process.

ch paint



5 thoughts on “Chromatic Improvisation And The Art of Wu-Fa.

  1. Thank you for great new material! Chromatic patterns are always welcome to free improvisation palette.

    1. No problem. I am just happy if anyone/anywhere can use what I post.

      Chromatic music, if created with thought and straining can be amazing beautiful, and was especially in the ‘first wave’ Free Jazz of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Dewey Redman.

  2. Once again, music and poetry collide! Wonderful! I sometimes create “collage” poetry by, in essence, throwing lines up in the air and using their landing points as a basis for new “compositions.” I don’t of course worry about sixteenth note quintuplets… 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it!

      This tactic is such a valuable asset in the arsenal of the improviser: musical or otherwise. David Bowie used to do this all the time, and later had software created to do it with inputted text.

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