Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2

Peter Lovatt’s improvisation workshop, which followed hot on the heels of The Science of Improvisation, concentrated on verbal as opposed to musical improvisation. I imagine the reasons for this included:

  • not all present would have brought instruments

  • not all present were musicians

  • breaking into groups, working verbally would produce less racket than would its musical equivalent

However, being an guitar teacher, I’ve since thought about how to make use of parallels. I should perhaps point out here as a prelude to outlining my memory and analysis of events that, unlike the two longer seminars, I did not make an audio recording – the nature of the workshop simply wasn’t going to lend itself to that, as we were frequently to break into changing groups to try out the various ideas. I know how unreliable memory can be, but I feel I can remember most of what happened.

At the heart of the workshop was a set of strategies designed to help us think more creatively and to avoid slipping into set patterns – of thought and speech. Why do we opt so frequently for these patterns? The reasons are many and varied but one of them is simply that we choose to do so. So, one way to avoid that is to rule out that choice by relinquishing control of the conversation. This was achieved in an exercise where, together with 3 other people, we would construct a sentence where each person contributed only every 4th word. (There is a two-handed version of this played on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue). The outcome could be as zany as you liked, but had to make lexical sense. To this end, we were permitted to insert punctuation – including a full-stop before moving onto a new sentence. Apart from preventing attempts at control, the team architecture of the sentence also precluded thinking ahead and planning, as it would not be possible to chose your word until you’d heard the one immediately before it. In some cases, it would prove impossible even to predict which part of speech you’d be likely to require. However, part of the fun of it was that you’d be expected to come up with something fairly quickly.

An example:

1 – this – 2 – cheese – 3 – is – 4 – off – 1 – and – 2 – on – 3 – reduced – 4 – in – 1 – price.

One common cause of being wrong-footed was use of homophones:

1 – have – 2 – you – 3 – read – 4 – braces? (works better off the page…)

Is there a musical equivalent of wrong-footing with homophones? Well not exactly, but if we agree that context is everything in the case of correctly interpreting unwritten homophones, then there is a kind of equivalence in the mediating effect of harmony upon a melody note. By way of illustration, the following midi file incorporates eight versions of the same four-bar phrase from the popular Catalan folk song, El Noi de la Mare. The variations are separated by clicks. The melody is identical in all cases – as is all of the harmony apart from the final chord. However, I think you’ll agree that the change in colour outweighs the relatively small adjustment. For those consumed by harmonic intrigue, the final chords are: C; C7; Am9; E/G#; C/Bb; C#m7b5; C dim7 & E7: El Noi de la Mare

An example of a parallel early in improvisational training would be to ask pupils to improvise over an accompaniment which shifts, without warning, between major and minor. As most of the treachery of minor scales/modes occurs in the 6th and 7th notes of the scale, I usually restrict choice to the first five notes – or pentachord – not to be confused with a pentatonic scale.

minor = A B C D E major = A B C# D E

The following midi file is an example of the kind of backing used – simple and repetitive, so that the only thing changing is the very thing for which we are listening: maj-min backing

A slightly more advanced example of pupils modulating improvisational output to match the accompaniment requires asking them to reuse a short group of notes, but to sidestep into a neighbouring key. This kind of thing works more easily on the guitar than, say, the piano, or any the many instruments where the relocation of identical visual shapes is not applicable. It’s true that we are relying here on something approaching set patterns here, but the location remains uncertain. I’m sure scientists would agree that what’s required is a mix of dependent and independent variables in any experiment. The following midi file is an example of a typical montuno backing: Montuno

The 2nd game involved conversing in three-word sentences. Two volunteers got up and were given the stimulus, “I love you.” The outcome couldn’t have been better if planned – once again the idea was to avoid hesitation:

“I love you.”

“No you don’t”

“Please love me.”

“Read my lips!”

The element of restriction here reminded me of introducing young pupils to improvisation. Few things are more disabling than choice and those who are given only two or three notes and asked to be as varied and adventurous with rhythms as possible often manage to inject a feeling of vitality into what might otherwise be a trepidatious maiden voyage. Given too wide a range of notes, rhythm is often the first casualty as pupils are sidetracked by navigating (or in some cases remembering) the notes. The resulting output is a series of apprehensively presented crotchets. Interestingly, most pupils will not incorporate space or silence into their first improvisatory efforts until given permission. It’s as though it’s equated with lack of ability or effort.

The 3rd game involved one person thinking on their feet as they answered questions on biographical details implicit in the question:

“How long have you been working at The Wellcome Collection now?”

“Six months.”

“And you’re involved in…?”

“Publicity and marketing, mainly.”

“I imagine the budget’s pretty healthy?”

“It doesn’t do to be unnecessarily profligate, though.”

An element of reciprocity was then added and the person answering the question had to follow it up with a similarly loaded question:

“So, Bob, do you still have that relaxation and confidence building CD I lent you?”

“I was worried you were going to ask about that. You know Ronnie?

“Ronnie the builder? Yes. Did you lend it to him?”

“No, he laughed when he saw it and, embarrassed, I said that it came through the door as a free sample and would certainly be binning it. Can you guess what happened next?”

“I suppose it’s too obvious to say that you binned it. Where is it now?”

He said that he was constructing a table made out of rubbish CDs saving the planet and the airwaves – and asked if he could have it. Would you like me to replace it?”

“How relaxed and confident would you feel about parting with £15?

I’ve since been experimenting with the pick it up and run with it nature of this exercise in a musical setting. Many beginners finish the lesson with an aural game where I ask them to prepare a recently learned note and then to look away. I play a very short tune which begins on that note and they try to play it back to me after one hearing. In the improvisatory version of this game, they have to begin with the initial note but can branch off and play a variation – using only notes they have already learned. At this time of year, that could be as few as six or seven. As described above, the smaller the vocabulary, the more inventive the articulation. The outcome of a typical session might be as follows – the click represents the point at which I say, “go!” Q & A impro

The final game was more of a solo exercise in spontaneity. We were asked to imagine that we had a huge shopping bag between our feet and to pull out and name random items to a steady beat (approx 35 beats per minute). Having come across the dangers of faux spontaneity in the morning seminar’s random number generation exercise, we were encouraged to avoid pulling out something similar or related to the previous item. The relentless demand of the steady beat added the required pressure. Eventually, feeling I was getting the hang of it, I vowed to name items from contrasting aisles of the supermarket (however, I have to confess that they all came from the familiar layout of my local one):

cucumber; paracetamol; Solero; walnuts; shoe polish; Pinot Grigio (not an average weekly shop, I’ll grant you)

I then decided to up the ante and introduced into the bag a few random concepts:

ginger beer; apprehension; spring rolls; entropy; celery; déja vu

While it hadn’t seemed impossible to alternate between various types of consumer items, it really was a struggle to resist following either a product or a concept with another one. I’ve no idea why this should be. Why not try it? Anyone got any ideas?

By an amazing coincidence, there were free seats next to Peter Lovatt in the café and we sat next to him to chat about the day’s fascinating events so far. I pointed out the connection between apparent restriction and resulting freedom and mentioned an increasingly resonant remark by Igor Stravinsky, which concurs with my growing suspicion that, at the heart of every truth lies a paradox. This seemed to strike a chord. In both The Science of Improvisation seminar and the workshop, Peter Lovatt came across as an energetic, humorous and warm person – knowledgeable and a people person – an asset at any such event!

Marina Wallace (of artakt), in her closing vote of thanks couple of hours later, thanked the audience for their enthusiasm and participation. I was pleased about this as it had struck me in this workshop that I was surrounded by a many interesting and interested people – unselfconscious, friendly and game for anything.

Running concurrently with Peter Lovatt’s session was a workshop run by Dr Tim Blackwell from Swarm Music. Sadly it wasn’t possible to attend both the seminars and both workshops and, by the time we exited the afternoon seminar, Music Leaves Its Mark (which I’ll write up soon) the final Swarm workshop was full subscribed. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with that some day.


4 thoughts on “Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 2”

  1. “a musical equivalent of wrong-footing with homophones”?

    Would you say that enharmonic notes are exactly this?

    We amateur orchestral string players who rely heavily on music to play our parts, (and less on memory) are frequently challenged by the use of, for example, the more unfamiliar Gb when F# would be rendered by the same finger on the same string, albeit slightly differently placed to account for the harmonic flavour, but with less brain power expended.

    Adherence to conventions of harmonic notation also means that some concentration is required to render the correct interval from say, Cb to Db, whereas the same interval written as B to C# would be much more familiar, (and probably sound better!)

    Playing Tippett recently, where the harmonic intervals could not be assumed, was very hard reading work indeed.

    Even though we understand perfectly well about harmony, scales and keys we’d still write little enharmonic reminders above very awkward passages.

    Your workshops sound as if they stimulated parts of the brain that are underused in most of us. Did you feel invigorated or tired afterwards?

  2. Hi Dorothy

    Thanks for your comment. Enharmonic notes didn’t cross mind when writing this, as I was really thinking solely about sound – playing by ear and responding to aural stimuli – but I see your point.

    Enharmonic notes can cause something of a moral maze for music teachers. For someone in view of the full picture e.g. composer, arranger, conductor, copyist and particularly “transposer” it’s essential that usage is correct. However, would a pupil in an ensemble prefer an easily readable part than one whose spelling conforms to other parts they will never see? Does ironing out their path deprive them of the opportunity to understand the issue?

    I recall some pupils asking (or rather moaning) about the opening phrase of a great little piece by Nikita Koshikin* called Paper Dragon. In the key of E, it begins – B E F# Fx G# and most confessed they would rather see B E F# G G#. I tried to explain that were the correct version to be transposed into the key of C it would read G C D D# E whereas the easier version would become G C D Eb E – where, one could argue, the chromatically rising nature of it is less clear. This enharmonic business freaked them out more than the time signature of 7/8.

    You’re right – the seminars and workshops were invigorating so I didn’t feel tired even although the schedule was quite full:

    Journey on Friday evening (Waverly, Kings Cross, East Dulwich)
    Journey on Saturday morning (East Dulwich – Euston Road)
    Seminar 1 – 11:30 – 1:00
    Improvisation Workshop – 1:00 – 1:40
    Seminar 2 – 2:00 – 4:00 with a 10 minute interval
    Improvised Performance in gallery

    The only thing I find invariably tiring is boredom.

    * you can see Koshkin playing here http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj5L7DreC5A

  3. Your use of the word “spelling” made me relate this back to words. There are people who would abandon inconvenient spellings in favour of broader, more easily understood rules, in the cause of consistency and ease of use. The argument then is that the visual root of the word might be lost. I suppose the business of enharmonic notation is exactly parallel isn’t it?

    On the other hand, I’m not averse to textspeak in the right context.

    So on reflection, I think you are right that retaining the “correct” notation in writing the music is important, and that it is for the performer to add anything that will make it more playable for him/herself.

    The Koshkin vid was fascinating…very quirky.

    What a full weekend you had – and very few breaks! I’m off to be inspired at the Tapestry event on Tuesday – I don’t think it will be as interactive as your course, but fortunately, I don’t think boredom will be a feature there either.

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