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Thoughts on composition and improvisation

February 20th, 2008 | No Comments | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians |

Went out for dinner last night with the ever-wonderful Theo Travis. Not only is Theo one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to play with, but he’s a really inspiring person to spend time with, and I always come away with all kinds of new thoughts and inspiration whenever we hang out.

One of things we were talking about last night was improvisation. Theo made a couple of great observations; the first was about how lazy it is of reviewers to think that the highest praise you can give an improv record is that it’s ‘so good is sounds composed’. His second was that whenever you see a ‘what I’m listening to’ list from the titans of jazz, it’s almost invariably ‘classical’ (orchestral/chamber works) music that they are listening to.

Which sparked off a series of thoughts in me about structure in improvised music – the first point about reviewers is an important one, because it presupposes that the best structure and form comes for writing and refining rather than reacting. The record I recorded with Theo is, IMO, way better than it would have been if we’d composed it. The structures are too complex to be writable, the interaction between us way too intuitive to have been conceived of abstracted from us playing and reacting… There are things in it that felt wrong to one or other of us as we played them but turned out to be fantastic.

And to hammer the point home, every track on the album is a first take. There is somewhere a second take of every track, and none of them had the magic of the first takes. When we tried to turn them into ‘songs’ they lost something.

So onto the ‘top jazzers listen to classical music’ – I think this too is a matter of structure. I think it was Daniel Barenboim (might not have been, but it sounds like something he’d say) who said that ‘the best composed music sounds improvised and the best improvisations sound composed’ – meaning that in a composition one is hoping to inject the feeling that the performer is playing it because it’s the best possible thing to play right at that moment, not that they are settling for the shit that’s on the page cos that’s their job. There wants to be a relationship between the various parts that feels like it’s happening right there, like those lines are so meant to go together that all the players must be sharing a brain and thinking it up together…

Likewise, with an improvisation, the feeling that it’s the best you could possibly come up with even if you sat and edited it, that the strands running through it grow and evolve in the way you want them to, that the performer is in control of saying exactly what needs to be said with the most amazing level of skill – that’s what we’re aiming for.

So it stands to reason that great improvisors would spend time absorbing forms and structures and arrangements and ideas from the masters of form and structure – composers.

For the last couple of days I’ve been ‘rinsing’ Bartok’s string quartets nos. 1, 3 & 5. The music is so so beautiful, so deep and complex, and at times incredibly dark and dissonant but never without shape and form and beauty. It’s remarkable stuff, and I’m just letting it soak in and seeing what happens. I may end up having to get a book on Bartok, to try and get inside some of the harmonic ideas, but we’ll see how far I get by osmosis…

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