Given that I am a classical musician this form of improvisation was confronting, as I had to consider that music should not always follow this goal-oriented direction, and that sometimes it is acceptable to just let music develop as a collective feeling. Another thing to add was my confusion towards how the audience might be interpreting the music. For instance, there were six speakers on stage and the sound from these speakers disoriented me to a degree as I was not able to say who was doing what. Whereas, in classical music everyone is able to distinguish within the space which instrument is doing what, and from which part of the stage the sound comes from. However, when electronics are involved, the sound can come from any of the participants, which is very interesting and challenging to the performer.
Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood.
—Derek Bailey (1980)
1.1 Improvisation with Electroacoustic Ensemble and Richard Barrett
Barrett defines free improvisation as a “form of engagement with issues and questions that go far beyond what happens during a musical performance, without ever being a source of easy answers to those questions”.
The experience of being part of this Electroacoustic Ensemble was very inspirational in the way of sharing the stage with different students of the Sonology department and one their main teachers, Richard Barrett. There are no rules about the improvisation, only to listen carefully to each other and to how the texture is changing when someone else comes up with a new idea. There is no instrument as a soloist and/or accompaniment – the point was to fit in with the sound of the others, to create an atmosphere where the music develops. When we all perceived the end of the performance (after 15 minutes), the music completely disappears.
Creating a musical atmosphere in this way was interesting for me because no one was more important than anyone else. Everyone must be able to hear each other in order to have communicative interaction between the participants. Everyone had to maintain the balance of being a receptive ear and to creative freedom. Searching for silence in the music to let it breathe, and not play all the time. During my playing, when new ideas where not appearing, I just stopped playing and let the others create. So at the same time I create a change in the texture, which others can use to develop the music in a different way. Looking for new sounds on the viola, adjusting more with the electronic timber, was not only a way to explore different techniques on any part of my instrument, as would be playing with the wood of my bow or making percussion with the body of my viola, but it also made me pay more attention on the general sound and being faster to relate which part of my instrument would be more similar to the others.
One example I would like to discuss is a concert done in the concert hall of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague on the 29th of January, during a Sonology concert. At this concert many musically interesting things happened. The ensemble was composed of two pianos (one of them was a prepared piano), an electronic violin, one viola, one person from the Sonology department and the teacher Richard Barrett. During the concert there were moments where I, as the viola player, had a “conversation” with the piano, then the violin came up with another idea that I also wanted to follow. Essentially, there was no one taking a principal roll during this entire performance, which is often what we are supposed to do in traditional classical music, but, in my opinion, this provoked a situation where no one took an initiative to help the piece to arrive at a climax—something I originally thought should happen in order to give the music a sense of direction. However, in contrast the music remained more static until it totally disappeared and left the audience in the complete silence of the hall.
The participants were motivated to choose open time frames as methodologies in order to produce experimental, live or spontaneous practice, or to develop the ability to spontaneously invent movement and create a performance in the frame of this workshop — a situation where artists can develop movement and musical material and absorb new ideas to improve their creativity and develop their ability to react fast to come up with new ideas.
According to Duck: “I see it has to help students to become aware of the changing patterns in the mind and the body systems”. For Duck, improvisation is her overall approach, or how the subjects of technique, theory and composition can be taught.
Inherently, in these sessions there are no rules nor are there good or wrong ideas that can be judged. The difficultly for me, at the beginning and still waiting to being developed is how I can react quickly and introduce new ideas. Often, I needed more time to react on the “stage” with a new idea. For example, by the time I got used to a musical idea and was ready to improvise with it, often the idea was no longer valid or relevant to the musical situation.
Moreover, the idea of mixing different arts, such as dance, theater, and music is very complex thing to do and at the same time a difficult concept to approach. The fact of having to play in concordance with what is happening all around — with movement of dancers, etc. — is something that is incrediblely difficult. After every session, we all sit down and exchange ideas and discuss our feelings about the performance. At this time we receive advice some and feedback on what we could change or have done differently to make the performance more real and fluent.
Another aspect to work on in these sessions, was the notion of the time passing. In an improvised performance where there is no score or piece to follow, the time frame is something important to have in mind during the performance. All the artists must be aware to not lose this notion and to feel the end of the performance. This is another aspect, which we have been working on, using small time frame, between 10 and 15 minutes. This is something always approximate that can oscillate from 8 to 20 minutes. Therefore, working within a frame of time established from the beginning, will develop our sense of time, as we become more aware of its presence in future performances.
According to Duck, when she was working on Magpie:
We are working in rehearsal on how to maintain the tension in the space, the communication between the musicians, dancers and public and the shifts of constellations and materials in an entertaining yet unexpected way. Musicians are not usually used to rehearsing improvisation. I suppose dancers are not used to this as well. But it was the dancers in Magpie who eventually formulated a way to rehearse for performances.
In the interview “A long little talk with a mature dancer”, this conversation came up:
“Min: I’ve also experienced that in a Contact Improvisation I learned, not just physical things, but also the philosophy of how we are relating to each other for example. It was something I found so healthy, so very healthy. I don’t know how that can be incorporated or used in a performance or choreography or rehearsals, but independently of that, just on its own the experience of that was of great value. It was so democratic and so respecting of each other and just getting together was very nourishing”.
Katie: “Improvisation is a funny word. I consider biology, feelings and nature when I say improvisation. The theories for relativity were sitting there for a long time prior to Einstein being able to place it in a way that communicated to others. Einstein discovered the theory of relativity because he felt it. Improvisation could be a word we use to express the place that cannot be explained over the processes of time. Improvisation could be a code term that we use to amplify the possibility to be aware of the present with a vision for a future with a minimal burden about what has happened in the past”.
Going back to the workshop of Katie Duck, I would like to talk about my improvement and my “let it go” attitude. The first day I was quite shy and insecure about improvising. My mind was busy with many questions: “Am I going to play good? Will I be able to fit with the others? Will I disturb others with my playing? What If I run out of ideas”?
1.2. Free improvisation dancers and musicians with Katie Duck
“In order to uncover dance and music connections, we must pay attention to
all the factors serving music and dance expression and how these factors
participate in their connections. We must take into consideration that dance
and music are special phenomena that take place in time and space, thereby
creating communication between the dancer and the musician and between the
performers and the audience, while operating within socio-cultural context,
using kinetic, visual, acoustic and proxemic channels.” (Felföldi, 2001:160)
The workshops guided by Katie Duck provided a space to share real time composition performances and a place to practice integrating diverse “time arts” under the conditions of improvisation. The sessions were not workshops or jams. They were an improvisation situation that demanded that the dancer, actor and musician place their work into a composition that can be publicly performed. In short, everyone has the opportunity to a wide artistic palate, one that often questions the integration of multidisciplinary time arts and real time composition. The workshop series was aimed towards all levels of musicians, dancers, actors, singers and performance artist. Every workshop was 2 hours and were guided by Katie Duck and when she is on tour, by other teachers.
After every ten minutes we sat down in a circle and gave feedback about how the performance was. No one judged anyone, just commenting on how it went, how it could be better… After a few sessions I was feeling more and more comfortable, and taking the risk of being part of the scene. Later I was also joining the improvised conversations, something I never thought I would do – to step so far from my comfort zone.
The talking was difficult for me! What could I say? I learned in this workshop, that the most stupid thing that comes to your mind, could look stupid from the inside, but from the stage it could be a brilliant idea – this includes body movements. When watching others acting and playing, the one that did not move as much was the one looking more weird from the audience perspective.
Step by step I started to let go of my thoughts and redirect my attention to the performance without any self-judgment. I still did not manage that as much as I would like to have, but I can see myself more open and accepting of what comes out from me, letting my own voice happen.
Another aspect we worked on with the dancer Izabela Pacewics, is how everyone sees themselves on stage. This is an interesting point of view you get from yourself during your acting. Instead of being the center of the stage, your body becomes part of the space, by having in mind the perception of the space. You think about yourself as a body that is occupying a small part of the area, and how small you are compared to the space around you and how many people are sharing the same space. That made me feel less important in that I perceived myself as a small part occupying the room, and I stopped feeling that I was the center of attention. Therefore, my body movements started to be freer and less tense. I was more engaged and more aware of what was happening around me. I started to moved together with the other participants, first without touching our bodies, letting go of whatever movement was coming out of hour body. I was totally focused on what my body was doing and how this was affecting the movement of the other; my muscles and mind were relaxed and my body felt grounded.
The session always starts with warming up the centre and creating connection with the centre, the deepest point of the body, and breathing deeply there. It continues with creating awareness thorough the spine and stimulating all the vertebrae, pushing the centre up and pressing the feet into the floor. The most important is to never stop breathing and not to tense any part of the body.
Every movement we do here must be controlled and not doing any rough movement, feeling the air connecting with the skin and connecting with the floor, to connect with body awareness and to be into your body. Every movement made is to take the attention of a certain part of the body, to know better our body. The work we do working with the centre of our body can help every musician to play better. Fajo explains: “I realized that vocal chords are very much alone in the study, they are not supported by the rest of the muscles in the body and, in my opinion, you should carry the instrument, your viola case, on top of the knowledge of the body. The more you know with your body, I think, the better you can play. Especially by using your senses. Of course you have emotional senses when you play, but you should also have physical senses, so you can connect your emotional senses to the physical ones and then go to the viola. So, to be exact, the body is the intermediary between your emotions and instrument. Therefore you have to open up the body, to know more about what is happening inside your body, how you can use your body efficiently, and guide it actually to the instrument”.
The skin is a tool to make contact with the world, Fajo says, to open and to look inside the body. We move around on the floor having contact with the floor with all the parts of our body, as he says, with every cell, to have contact with the world.
Having a control over your energy on stage is an aspect to have in mind in order to control your nerves. Too much energy does not help your playing, we have to create simplicity on stage, freedom: “When you feel safe, neutral to your body and connected, grounded, you do not have all that, when you focus on your work and present your body, that is your neutral stage, and from this neutral being you play. When the musicians are too much in their emotions I do not like that, because when you are too much in your emotions, I do not believe you. Give me the emotion and then I will make my own story!”
Another interesting exercise we did was to work the core, with partners, each carrying the other. The feeling of carrying someone of around 60kg and having no problem in holding him/her for a while, was very interesting. When the other person focused all the energy in the centre of the bodythex seem zto weigh less.
Fajo Jansen Interview
1. Since when are you teaching movement lessons to musicians? Since 2004.
2. How, in your opinion, can movement affect positively in musicians? In which aspects this can help on their playing and their position on stage?
Well, this is a very long story, movements without body, no music, because if you don’t have a body then you can not play music, you can not sing, without a body you can not play an instrument, you need a body to stimulate your vocal core. I realized that vocal cores are very much alone in the study, they are not supported by the rest of the muscles in the body and, in my opinion it should carry the instrument, your case viola, on top of the knowledge of the body. The more you know with your body, I think, the better you can play. Specially your senses inside. Of course you have emotional senses when you play, but you should also have physical senses, so you can put your emotional senses to the physical one and the go to the viola. So, exact the body is intermediate between your emotion and instrument. Therefore you have to open up the body, to know more about what is happening inside your body, how you can use your body efficient, and guide it actually to the instrument. It starts in the feet, you guide it from the floor into the feet through the body, to the instrument.
When you have knowledge about the body and the breathing system, the standing system, grounding, presentation and standing on the stage around you with your skin, the posture goes automatically. It has to do with the all feeling of your emotion with all your body. Are you in your body or not? If you are not in your body, I call it the warm, if you are not warm with your body you can play, but is more hard. Playing it should come out from your deepest soul. It is not the play, it is was is happening to the core, expanded to the rest of the body. I have it with my dance. The people who are on stage is the same, for singers, dancers, instrumentalists, actors… it is the warmed of the body to the discipline you have to do. So the body is first in all the disciplines, also the instrumentalists. I often see, when instrumentalists come on stage, they hide behind their instruments. They want the people look at their instruments and not at them, because they think the instrument is doing it. No! You are doing it! The instrument is the third arm, the second belly, the third hear… it is a part of your body and should be integrate in the total experience of the body.
3. Does it affect positively the sound of the instrument as well as to feel more grounded?
Well, I think when you have enough body experiences of what is happening there and you you can develop that, so you will have a deeper feeling of your emotion, sensation, being you and who I am, and how big is that. From this you can color your sound, because I think the sound is in the body and comes out by the instrument. I think when you have more detailing inside your body, more senses developed, you can use that when you play. If you have 10 senses developed in your body, you can use all 10 senses when you play. When you do not have senses in your body, you can only play what it is on the paper. But when you use all this senses for helping the sound, I think you have more richer sound and more possibilities.
4. Why would you recommend every musician to take part of this? In the sense to prevent injuries?
Yes, this comes automatically. I had once ago in my class, her left shoulder was always up. I asked her: “why you have this like that” and she said “it is growing that way”, I asked her when she started played violin “I was 8 or 9 years old. “What did you do?”, she answered “I always left this to put my violin, so my all body though it had to build like that because she needed it”, the body always do everything for surviving. Also, when you sing very well, that is not normal, the singers do not needed a nature, that is why you need to study so long. You bring your instrument, your vocal course, out of the natural system, you bring it to the higher level. It is the same with the classical ballet, it is not normal in the nature, you have to study a long time out of the natural form. It is happening to her also, because she did always like that, and it is not possible to go back anymore, you have to broke eon that for present. The spine is your own presentation, you do not play with the back rounded, you have the feeling of being hang and yay. The then n you are open for the public. You have to be body awareness. You only need to know body awareness, you will sound better, if you know your body better. Singers have a lot of problems with their arm, they do not and put it like that and grow again. When it comes from the skeleton things it is a pro what to do, they do not have relation with their inner should. If you have a relation with your inner soul, then the story of the area comes automatically in the body into your arms, and theblem.
5. Is it only something that could help the musician to feel more comfortable on stage, or does it affect as well the audience to trust you more because you give a more confidence presence of yourself?
I have a ritual every day, what we are doing here in the class, this ritual gives me a fantastic body feeling, a round feeling and a grounded feeling. In standing position you can use your center and the feet souls on the floor and the top ou will not have injuries, all those questions you asked me before they are solved already the arms alive even when they are just hanging. So everything comes from the same point, connected with your center, connected with the floor, connected with your presentation, these are the main things. The rest comes automatically, it is very simple.
6. Julia: you can apply this with the real life?
It is actually very good, everyone should do this, because the work I do with you is natural work, not ballet work, when I say leave the hip, everybody can move the hip, or you must be completely disturb if you do not know where the hip is, that could be, but most of the people can do it, what I do is very easy to understand and work quite good.
7. How it affects the audience this impression you are giving on stage?
The audience should not be busy, what is the matter with this boy/girl? They should accept you as somebody who is presenting the music, the interpret is the intermediate between what is written from the composer and the sound of the people hear, somebody has to stay in the middle to bring it to the audience. You have to be aware that you give the music to the public, the audience should not be busy with you as a person, because you are afraid, unsure… it is physical language. When you feel safe, neutral to your body and connected, grounded, you do not have all that, when you focus on your work and present your body, that is your neutral stage, and from this neutral being you play. When the musicians are too much in their emotions I do not like that, because they are too much in their emotions, I do not believe you, give me the emotion and then I will make my own story!
8. How do you think it can help if you are a person who gets very nervous on stage?
Often, people see nerves as an enemy, but you have them not for nothing, you have it because when you are nervous the body creates adrenaline, and you need it in situations when you are in danger. This is why the nature created it, so it gives you the possibility to perform in a higher level, without adrenaline you can not come there. If you see the audience as an enemy, you create fear and then you fail, you can not hope it goes well. You have to guide your nerves to the floor with the breathing out, so you guide it somewhere, so you put your nerves under you and it realizes your body. Still goes on but use it as a positive way to perform in a higher level, see it in that way and not struggle with it. The base is to accept and not to fight with it, see is as a friend and not as enemy.
Something that worked really well to open up the body, was moving around someone, dancing around the other. For me was very challenging because, at the beginning, I was shy to dance too close around someone I do not really know, and having physical contact with this person. In another way it helped me to just feel and concentrate on my own body, instead of thinking what I was doing, what this other person is thinking about me. Am I doing it well? These are the thoughts I use to have when I was on stage – doubting my playing and myself. After some months of attending Fajo’s lessons, I can noticed a clear improvement on stage, not only physically being more in my body, also being more open to the world and less judging.
1.3 Dance improvisation with Fajo Jansen
Fajo Jansen is a Dutch dancer and choreographer who has been teaching body awareness to musicians since 2004.
In the interview I did with him I asked him, “In which aspect can knowing your body better can effect a musician’s playing?” His answer was: “When you have knowledge about the body and the breathing system, the standing system, grounding, presentation and standing on the stage around you with your skin, the posture goes automatically. It has to do with the all feeling of your emotion with all your body. Are you in your body or not? If you are not in your body (I call it warm), if you are not warm with your body you can play, but it is harder. Playing should come out from your deepest soul. It is not the playing, it is what is happening in the core, expanded to the rest of the body. I have it with my dance. For people who are on stage it is the same; for singers, dancers, instrumentalists, actors… it is the warmth of the body to the discipline you have to do. So the body is first in all the disciplines, also for the instrumentalists”.
Fajo works on body awareness through the skin, the connection of skin with the air, the skin with the floor. The body is empty and light on the stage as if it is our instrument, and we keep the lightness breathing. Inside the pelvis we have the centre (of course this is imaginary), and from here comes the energy. He teaches how to bring this energy to the legs, to the soles of the feet and then to the floor, in order to be more grounded on stage. All of these elements help on stage.
Breathe into the centre, being aware that your body is in contact with the floor, having all the muscles relax – that is what we need when we are on stage, where it is necessary to open the senses. Fajo is always talking about creating space inside the body; finding a peace. What we need on stage is inside peace; awareness, alertness and physical knowledge. Every movement you do should come from the centre.
The second exercise was more different for dancers than for musicians. It involved how we can develop gestures in the body and how we can develop musical gestures. Dancers had to think how to inform the musicians how to play. Every movement and music composition must be developed; as Mary said, “make your vocabulary stronger”. Whether you are singing or producing sound, how are you are going to move your body in the space if you are thinking compositionally in the sound,? This is really good for the brain, in terms of being more aware of where are you putting your body in the space.
The third exercise consisted of being aware of every sound that is happening in the room. We were in different parts of the room where we could not see each other. The presence of everyone in the room is informing our choices. We all have presence, so this exercise is too see what happens if we do not see each other, and how that is coming into play with the sound and the feelings of the group. With dancers it is about movement, and for musicians it is about how we put our sound in the space. In order for it to work, the musicians must be as quiet as possible to be able to spot everyone in the space and be able to detect from which part of the room someone is moving, at what velocity and to where. It is important to not play all the time, to make space with the music and to let others act so the next thing you do is a continuity of this space that it is being creating with movement or sound. The music and movement is continuous all the time, because it is still happening when there is silence as well. It is developing very slowly and it is important to keep in mind that the dancers must do movements that others can hear and be able to position themself in the space as well. It was interesting to hear one movement or sound and suddenly another one took the initiative to continue, causing the creation in the space creation to never stop. As it is a movement exercise, there is a tempo and a texture to follow, causing the participants to move with the atmosphere and not play so much.
The session finished with a free improvisation. We are all on one side of the room and the rest of the room simulates “the space”. Everything is allowed, there can be improvised conversations and theatre, as well as playing with the lighting. The ‘performance’ started with Mary playing the viola and one dancer, where after some minutes another dancer and me entered on the scene, and the other two went out. I was playing pizzicato and the dancer was reacting with short and direct movements. At some point, the dancer started to do longer movements which stimulated to me take the bow and to play following his movements. Suddenly Mary entered with a strong and fast tempo, changing suddenly the texture. Then I left the stage. The two dancers on stage where doing fast movements thorough the space until Mary stopped playing and they where just moving without any instrument sounding, just the sound their own bodies were producing while moving. During the improvisation, the texture and different tempos were changing when someone was entering to the stage bringing a new idea or when they were leaving. Sounds with different objects in the room were produced, as it would be sliding hands through to hitting, percussion sounds, silences… In this type of improvisation it is very important to know when to come up with a new idea, but also when to leave the stage in order to give space for the others.
Interview Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver (born in La Jolla, California) is an American performer on violin, viola, and Hardanger fiddle, in the areas of New Music, free improvisation, and avant-garde jazz.
1. During your studies in California, did you study improvisation or classical music? I studied both, my PhD thesis on how improvisers can analyze their own improvisations, I am still playing in orchestra and chamber music. Mostly the composed music I was playing is contemporary classical music.
2. As a improviser violin and viola player, could you tell me what make you start as well to your improvisation? When I went to a concert of Malcolm Goldstein, violinist, improviser, and I saw him on stage improvising for and hour and I thought, wow! That is allowed! That got me started. That was when I was doing my masters so that was when I started to improvising then.
3. With which kind of stile did you start?
I play more experimental music and contemporary music. I played jazz but I do not consider myself a jazz player, I didn’t study jazz but I played with jazz players.
4. How improvisation affected your classical playing? And how your classical playing affect improvisation movement?
I guess it, open it up because so much improvising is incident composition, I think it is more a creative process, then I would approached composed music with that creative process in mind. For example: why does this musical jazz way, what was the composer trying to, specially was very difficult contemporary classical music, you helped with that.
5. As you perform with the body movement, do you remember how it affected positively to your playing and sound when you started?
Well I think it is moving the sound through the space more than doing any kind of doing dancerly body movement, it is more placing the music in other parts of the space because dancers are doing the same thing, so I work with that. I move but I do not go myself on the floor and round that, some people do it but I don’t.
6. How do you think the combination of improvisation music, theater and movement, can make a classical player develop their skills and feel more confident on stage??
Well, I think because you are working with all of this elements, you are thinking a lot more, you are more aware. By being more aware of what is going on, in therms of how are you moving your body in the space and how you are playing your instrument and how you are doing that. You have to be aware in a lot of different levels, and I think that how it can inform better playing.
1.4 Improvisation Workshop Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver (violin, viola, Hardanger fiddle), explores virtuosity in both scored and improvised music.
As a soloist, Oliver has premiered works by, among others, Richard Barrett, John Cage, Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Joëlle Léandre Liza Lim, George E. Lewis, Richard Teitelbaum and Iannis Xenakis. Based in Amsterdam, Oliver is a key member of the improvising community, locally and internationally.
The improvisation workshop for dancers and musicians was about sensory awareness and how you see yourself in the space, and see how you relate to the choreography. Mary called it “The creation of instant composition” or, in other words, real time creative process..
The first exercise consisted of transforming a movement to music. One participant would ‘draw’ something on another participant’s (either dancer or musician) back with their finger, and the second person would then try to interpret that into sound or movement, thus creating an improvisation using simple movements. The participants experimented with finding clearly they can transform the message drawn on their back into music, or movement, by responding to different pressures and different shapes, and finding different textures. With this exercise you are creating a sphere of awareness. When musicians played with dancers, where the dancers performed with movement and the musicians transformed those movements into music.
We also practiced being aware of listening to what the other instrument is doing to make a relationship with the sounds. Mary advises to start small and then develop the material. Dancers were using their voice as an instrument, changing their roll in the performance and being for instance a musician. This gives them the perspective of the other person in order to have a better understanding of what the other is doing. Then we add movement to the sound. When drawing on someone’s back the participant tries to convey both only music and movement. The person drwing must be clear where to touch the other’s body to get the sound and the movement they are intending. At some point, one of the dancers said that the other was reacting always late – Mary answered that this is interpretation. The brain needs time to interpret what this pressure is telling you. Playing with pressure can change the dynamics – for instance moving up the back the tone goes high, moving down it goes low, playing with the speed of the movement change the sound; moving through the space, changes the resulting sound.