Week 3, Improvising with Ideas

Class Summary

This week we looked at using a piece of existing music as material for improvisation, but from the level of underlying concept, rather than from the surface level as we did last week. We looked specifically at Bach’s Inventions, and discussed how the first one first establishes a protagonist (the opening motive), then leads this protagonist on a harmonic adventure through related keys before returning home again.

We discussed how this harmonic adventure resembles classical three-act-structure. Indeed, in act 1, we meet our hero (the motive) in the safety of home (the home key). Our hero is then thrust into an unknown and foreign situation — the dominant key — and we are left to ask ourselves if they will ever make it home safely again. In act 2, our hero is faced with challenge and uncertainty as they navigate all kinds of challenging and foreign harmonic terrain. Finally, in act 3, our hero makes it back to the home key, but they are changed — something has happened in the mean time.

Having observed this deep structure, we can use it to improvise, and our improvisation need not sound anything like the music we are using as inspiration. For example, here is a live concert of my project Invention / Reinventions in Paris, France last year (please don’t share this link, the video is unlisted and the project hasn’t been released yet). In this project, I play all fifteen of Bach’s Inventions, and for the nine missing keys, I improvise an invention of my own using the underlying idea we discussed, as well as others used by Bach.

As another example of deep structure, we briefly discussed how in György Ligeti’s piano étude Fanfares, he establishes a repeating ostinato in one voice, and makes melodies in the other voice by following the rule that the melodic notes must form a particular harmony (he starts with major triads, continues with minor triads, and gradually moves through more and more complex sonorities) with the ostinato note that occurs at the same time. 

We also, as a general consideration, talked about the notion of “voice” in improvisation. In the same way that in classical music, composers are expected to have a personal esthetic, in jazz improvisation, having a personal musical perspective is considered essential. In other words, if we are responding to a given piece of music or using it as inspiration, consider that it may be important to distinguish the tone of your response from the original, rather than imitating it. Of all the things we’ve discussed, this notion of “voice” is probably the slipperiest and hardest to define, but I do want to encourage all of you to express yourselves as personally as possible in your improvisations. 

For next Tuesday’s class, please choose a piece of music, find its underlying structure, and improvise using this. Please explain in your email to me what structure you are using, and what exactly it is you are doing in your improvisation. It’s perfectly okay to use the three-act-structure idea we discussed with respect to Bach’s Inventions; or you may use a different underlying structure. Please limit your improvisation to 4 minutes.


Han Geul Lee — Reich Piano Phase — keyboard with marimba sound

I had imagined something more elaborate but unfortunately I didn’t have much time to work on the assignment this week. There isn’t much to tell, I recorded some improvised Reich-esque and loop it, and phase the same material over it. I do a quick transition to another improvised loop, repeating the same procedure.I bring back the first loop after introducing the second loop to have some layers.

I am using Ableton Live and the Push 2 for live looping/recording. I’ve also been working on a solo version of Reich’s six pianos but I digress…

Really dig this! You did a great job of taking Reich’s idea and making something that doesn’t sound like him. Plus, to me this is a convincing piece of music — the changes of material are particularly welcome, it never gets boring or too repetitive. The build at the end with the high ostinato is great! Congrats. Nice sound, too. The only question I would ask is: Can you do this improvisationally? I’d be really curious to hear you experiment with that with a looper of some kind. Also I would have liked to hear an actual ending to the piece. 

Kesem Ninio — Saint-Saens Cavatine — trombone

The work which I based my improvisation on is a cavatine for trombone and piano by Saint-Sanes (op, 144). The underlying structure of this piece is actually the same as we discussed in the previous lesson. The first and last movements are quite similar and it creates a feeling of starting at home, going on a journey in the second movement and coming back at the end. Normal A B A – three act structure. Harmonically the movement is from D flat to E back to D flat.

Before starting the improvisation, I took this idea from the piece but with different harmonic language, and the thematic language I used was not at all based on the original piece. 
I started my first act in f dorian mode, very lyrical and slow. My second act was a big contrast – I moved to a different realm of harmony, trying to emphasize quartal harmony, along with augmented fourths. The tempo was much faster and it was somehow more intense and energized. In my act three, I moved back to the f minor, but this time with more “wisdom” I would say. 

I really enjoyed doing this assignment!

I’d love to hear this with a little reverb. 
Nice melodies in your a section. And as you point out in your notes, you’ve indeed made a powerful contrast in your b section. I like the new intervalic content, with all the fourths; This helps, along with the tempo and energetic differences, to separate it from the a section. Nice transition back to a, too — I like the patience you bring to this winding down of the energy. For certain, once we’re back in the last a, there’s a sense of having gone on an adventure, and of now coming to a place of conclusion and repose. The question that comes to mind, for me, is that of connection between these elements: How are the harmonies of the a and b sections connected? How is the melodic material connected? On a first and second listen, I can absolutely feel the emotional and dramatic journey you’re taking us on, but the sense of having a central character, someone consistent that we can follow on the journey, is less clear. That may be something to explore. Congratulations on a nice track, really enjoyed hearing this.

Leo Sussman — Improv on CPE Bach flute sonata phrase lengths — flute

I again used the first movement of the CPE Bach unaccompanied flute sonata as a launching point this week, but this time aimed to mirror the phrase structure of the original piece through the lengths of my own phrases. One aspect of CPE’s music that I find fascinating is the way in which he splices and concatenates musical material into asymmetrical structures; in my study of the piece I even found myself counting the number of measures of each phrase because I feel that durational proportions of this sort are essential to the underlying structure of his music.

For this improvisation, I started with the measure count breakdown of the original piece: four major sections with four or five sub-phrases each, ranging in length from three to a dozen measures. I decided to play one note of my own per measure of the original movement, grouping my notes into phrases of the same proportions. For the sake of simplicity and to emphasize these durational proportions I chose a free chant-like rhythm with essentially equal note values but plenty of rubato (though in the future I’d be curious to continue this type of experimentation in various rhythmic/metrical schemes, too). To heighten this chant-like feeling I inserted longer pauses delineating the major sections, as well as decided on a rough tonal trajectory for each section beforehand (d, f, a-flat, and b minor).

To be honest I’m not altogether thrilled with how this ended up sounding, but neither do I consider the experiment a total failure. I do feel that with practice this approach could lead to more satisfying musical results.

What a cool and interesting idea you’re using here! I think it’s quite original, and a really fresh way of going to the underlying structure of a piece. You say you’re unsatisfied with the results, but I thought it was quite successful. It felt to me that there was a clear sense of purpose, which to me is one of the most important things there can be. If there’s anything unsatisfying about it, I would say it’s the length — it just feels very short. I would suggest doing more with this underlying idea. Why not do a second pass, after this first one, where you are using two notes for every bar of the original? Then three, four, five, seven? Keeping this underlying structure going, especially since it’s so irregular, will help to unite these different sections, while the increasing rhythmic density will give it a sense of development. I agree with you that this approach is full of possibility. Thanks again for the nice sound, too!

Austin Zhang — Three-act structure — sax

Three act structure idea kind of…Need to try this a lot more.
Had a theme though not as consistent as the invention certainly.Went through the modulations of the first Invention up a minor third. A bit of 7/4 thing I went in and out of on accident. Hard to make the modulations flow and not sound forced or planned.

Love the clarity of the opening theme. A really clearly identifiable character, and one that asks a question: what’s going to happen? I particularly love what happens at the half-way point, where you take this theme and start turning it over on itself; I can really feel improvisation happening here. It also serves as a powerful midway point — a moment that feels clearly *different* from the rest, and which we notice. I.e. *something has happened*, an event. To your point of it being difficult to make the modulations flow — that’s absolutely true and takes quite a bit of practice to start getting the hang of. However, I’d say you did really well here. What’s perhaps missing is a sense of arrival in each key. That’s the power of what Bach and others do: once the theme is clearly established in a new key, we’ve already been modulating to it for a while, unnoticed, and as a result, the return of the theme feels very powerful in the new key, it feels like an arrival, a major step. This is what I’d recommend working on, for you — setting up your modulations well in advance so that once we get to the I of the new key, it feels inevitable. This’ll take time, but I think it’s very much worth it. I’d also encourage you to try making up the harmonies as you go along, instead of following Bach’s framework. This, also, will take time, and I’d encourage you to practice the harmonic exercise I shared in week 1, which has the added benefit of opening all kinds of doors for harmonic substitutions in standards. My one remaining comment is that the ending would have felt more powerful to me if the opening theme had been restated more clearly. I feel like I lost it a bit towards the end. Doing all these things at once is a big challenge and I’m so glad you tried it out! Hope you continue. Thanks for the nice sound, too, and beautiful playing.

Jacob Leibowitz — idea of dragging on the piano from Lachenmann’s Guero — prepared piano

My non-surface level idea I was using was the idea of dragging on the piano which I took from Lachenmann’s Guero. Can’t wait to hear what you think.

This raises a really interesting question: are techniques like “dragging” surface or subsurface elements? In a way, it doesn’t matter, and what matters is whether taking these constraints spurs new discoveries in ourselves. I love the patience of this improvisation, the space and openness of it. And I particularly love what starts to happen at 1:09, with the rhythmic pattern appearing. It feels very satisfying — a new development that clearly emerges organically from what came before. Then, at 2:35, a new rhythmic idea briefly emerges, and I really like that you stick to it. You’re clearly able to identify ideas as they present themselves and hold onto them, which is essential in this kind of improvisation. Nice ending, too; as in your previous submissions, you don’t overstay your welcome, and yet the piece is satisfying. Nice work.

Henry Sherris — Improv on emotional arc of Body and Soul — trumpet

Unlike other AABA tunes I think body and soul feels like more of a story. Not classical, but a song with lots of structure and organisation for a purpose. It feels sad, the melody is reflective, lyrics are like a lament but it harmonically sounds hopeful and after the second A and bridge (the only harmonic change) the melody takes on a different feeling and becomes happy. I feel like great players’ recordings gradually sound less sad, becomes more intense etc.

For the improv I tried to mimic the whole concept and arch of the song’s feeling. I tried to use the AABA structure (loosely to repeat the phrases) to organise – you can sort of see the four sections in the sound preview. In reflection I think transposing in intentional ways not just randomly (as you did with harmonic changes) and sticking to the motif’s idea helped to make it more unified – and being intentional about changing the  feeling of the theme I improvised (octave, half valve thing) 

Although there is a structure (AABA type arch, motif/melody focused, feeling/meaning of lyrics), the improv it still sounds a bit ‘fungal’. In hindsight it might not have been the best song to pick a structure from, but I had fun thinking about how to approach this assignment.

This is beautiful playing, and thanks for the nice sound / reverb. This does raise the question of whether the emotional arc of Body and Soul is surface or subsurface. I definitely feel the emotional arc you describe — the hope and positivity at 1:15 are palpable, and a clear contrast to what came before. As you noted yourself, it does sound a bit ‘fungal’, which is absolutely okay, but I do think it’d be interesting to experiment with having more continuity with your melodic idea. As it is, it’s difficult to feel that we have a central musical character that we’re following on the emotional journey — it feels like the emotional journey *is* the piece. Which is okay, but there’s a reason why narrative almost always presents us with central protagonists — it makes the listener want to know what’s going to happen. It makes us ask questions, and then the experience of listening becomes a dialogue, because we are invested in the outcome.

Maxine Troglauer — James Blake Lullaby for my Insomniac — trombone

I was trying to use the freely, rubato- flowing tempo that didn’t necessarily indicate any time signature and that is also not really precise, meaning there are overlapping entries of different voices which make it super human and breathing for me. 

Also I had to think about the expression of an organ, this organic up and down swelling that I tried to imitate through the use of a wawa mute and by putting a rather big reverb on the recording (I’ve always used different ones so far).

Also I tried to use Vibrato, because he really exaggerates when he sings, but when listening back to my take I noticed it wasn’t as much as I intended to do.

Overall, I just tried to not rush or come up with any quick, fast, filling notes that take away the attention from this free, flowing growing and decreasing texture.

The problem is, that my devices are not really capable of recording mutes and especially multiphonics really well, so it’s unfortunately hard to hear what I am singing on top. I’m working on this but I guess the only solution will be better mics..

This is beautiful, Maxine! I think this is my favorite submission of yours so far. I went back and listened to the Blake piece, and I think you did a wonderful job of taking the vibe of the piece and making it your own. Most of all, this really works as a piece of music, and indeed the reverb you added is an important part of that. Beautiful playing, too, and I like how specific you are here, really staying in one idea and showing great patience with it. Loved that you took this as an opportunity to use extended trombone techniques. The multiphonics came through clearly in my headphones, by the way. I really feel like you expressed yourself personally here.
A few thoughts: first, I personally wouldn’t describe the original as being in free or rubato tempo. To me it’s in straight 4/4 time — I can almost hear the backbeat when the chords end. However, I heard the rhythmic intention of the original in your response as well, so that element didn’t get lost.
A larger comment is that to me, what you’ve done here is more of a week 2 – type improvisation, because the connection between the two pieces feels like it’s on the surface: you’ve taken a surface element — the vibe, rhythm and to a certain extent the bass-line movement — and made your own improvisation using these elements.
I probably could have done a better job of explaining the distinction: a surface element is the “what” of the piece: the specific materials used. A subsurface element is the “how” of the piece: how way that the piece functions. Speaking abstractly, the way the Blake piece functions is: chords, with classical-style voice leading, follow a strict, repeating rhythm, with rhythmic swells in each chord. A melody floats over the top of it that feels out of time. In many ways, this is very similar in concept to the
Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. So, the question is, can you make something that uses this abstract, subsurface *idea* that sounds different from the original? Can you use the “how” of the music rather than the “what”?

Brandon Choi — Charlier Étude #12 — trumpet

For this assignment, I selected the Charlier etude number 12 (I’ve also attached it here if you want to follow along) and separated the written and improvised into two tracks.

The subsurface elements I extracted from the etude were mainly 1) the form, and 2) the organization and expansion of the motives. In the original, Charlier organizes his piece into three sections — an A, a B, and an A’. The A and B sections have distinct motives associated with them, but there is also a third motive introduced in the first A that pervades both sections (which I found interesting). All motives are harmonically expanded upon in some way, and there is lots of Debussy-like, impressionistic-sounding (by which I mean whole-tone I guess) developmental material connecting the statements and expansions of the motives.

In my own improvisation, I tried to emulate the same form, and to have three strong motives — one for the A and A’, one for the B, and one pervasive of both. The developmental material I chose as ligaments between the motives is more aligned to chromaticism, and I tried to really allow for the tonal motives shine through in contrast to that chromatic backdrop. Whereas Charlier chose a more secco, articulated B section in contrast to his flowing A’s, I tried to break up homogeneity by creating longer phrases consisting of longer rhythmic values.

First of all, nice sound, thanks for the mic’ing and reverb. And beautiful playing on the étude, which you didn’t need to provide for this assignment but which was really fun to hear. Also, your discussion of which subsurface elements you took from the piece is spot on. Right off the bat, I like how the vibe is completely different — your improvisation has a jazz feel that’s completely absent from the original. And I love the patience you’re bringing to the motive in the A — although it perhaps does get repeated a couple more times than would be ideal, for me. Still, great that you’re using this piece of material so strongly and clearly. I could clearly hear the transition to the B, but it’s definitely not as strongly demarcated as it is in the Charlier. That could be a nice challenge for you, to make an improvisation using these same constraints where the distinction in character between A and B is crystal clear. Sometimes I find it’s helpful to exaggerate these things at first and make them almost laughable obvious. You can always scale it back. The return of the motive in the A’ works great, and I liked your ending.
Nice work on this, and in particular, I feel that you really understood the assignment well.

Shimon Gambourg — Carl Stone Sukothai — Wurlitzer electric piano

I’m piggybacking off a Carl Stone work, Sukothai (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QKRFVqjqjk). Its charm to me was in the fact that he takes a keyboard work by Purcell and then proceeds to “clone” it for around twenty minutes, until it becomes this wonderful ambient piece. For one, I really feel a certain gap being bridged by having a Baroque composer manipulated by tape-edits – of course, a technique quite outdated today, so it carries its own sense of nostalgia as does the original piece.

The Purcell work is a rondo, so I decided to improvise one. The form is a loose ABACA, I guess. I then did the first two iterations of the cloning procedure to keep my submission reasonable. On another note, I feel like the need to self-edit is growing stronger with each passing week, although I did manage to settle on my first take this time. Who knows what happens next…

Thanks first of all for alerting me to this piece! I was familiar with I Am Sitting in a Room, but not with this, and this is quite different. Amazing how the smearing gradually obscures everything but the large-scale harmonic movement. And hilarious how he finishes it with an orchestra suddenly popping in!
I dig what you did here — taking the process of what already is a process piece and applying it to your own improvisation. Very clever, and a cool meta-take on the assignment.
My one criticism is that in 4 minutes, using this process it would only be possible to get to the real gold of the original piece — the eventual smearing — if the material you’re applying it to were quite a bit shorter. So that may be something to try, to improvise something perhaps 15 seconds long, and to run it through this process 15 times or so. I’d be curious to hear that. As it is, we’re only just getting started in the process. Also, is it possible to do this improvisationally? I think so, with a custom looper. Would be fun to try to write that in code…
Nice sound, by the way, and nice to hear you on the Wurlitzer (that’s what it is, right?).

Yevanhelina But — Scriabin Étude No. 12, Op.8 — piano

For this improvisation, I was inspired by Scriabin’s etude No. 12, Op.8, which has a three-act form.  For the left hand, I borrowed the character – that is, the blustery structure, for the right hand I borrowed the chord structure and also the mood of the melody.  I also used the idea of ​​three acts.

I listened to the Scriabin Étude, and I certainly hear the blustery character (good description!) of the left hand, and I can also hear how the melody you used in your right hand is inspired by the melody of the Étude. Also, I can see how the Étude has a three-act-structure, in the sense that a central idea — the quickly repeating octave, followed by something else — starts at home, then goes on a harmonic adventure and finally returns home. It’s not a “protagonist” that is as well defined and consistent as it is in, for example, Bach’s C Major Invention, but it is an idea that we can keep track of.

Is your improvisation improvised? I noticed how the opening theme is in e minor, then the closing theme is a repetition of the opening, but in b minor. If you were able to improvise this, then congratulations, it’s not easy to remember a whole melody that you just improvised, then transpose it to another key and play it back. The fact that you’ve added string accompaniment makes me think that this is not improvised. It sounds more like a written melody, with a B section in between. Your piece does have A B A structure, that is for sure, but that’s different from what I was explaining with regard to three-act-structure. A B A simply means that we have one idea, then a different contrasting idea, then a return to the original idea. Three-act-structure is different. In three-act-structure, the idea is to have a central protagonist, a hero or a leading character — for example the C D E F D E C G motive in Bach’s C Major Invention — and for this protagonist to go on a harmonic adventure before returning home. In your piece, we never return home, since we end up in a different key from where we started.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course — it’s fine to end up in a different key, and you can create any kind of music you want — but for this week, I’m looking for a clear execution of an underlying conceptual idea. What you’ve used here, the blustery mood and the affect of the melody — these are more surface-level ideas (the “what” of the piece) than underlying ideas (the “how” of the piece). So this would be a better submission for week 2 than for week 3. Also, I want to encourage you to really explore improvisation, where we create music on the spot, instead of planning it ahead of time. I know you don’t have a lot of experience with improvisation, but I encourage you to try! If you keep it simple, I think you might be surprised at the results.

Yixiang Wang — structural idea of Dvorak f minor Piano Trio — violin

My improvisation responding to the structural idea of Dvorak f minor Piano Trio. The form of the f minor trio is a sonata form. It has the theme, second theme, development section and a recap. It is highly influenced by Dvorak’s mentor, Brahms. (In this work, Dvorak used Czech music as thematic material as usual but the harmonic texture and the way he arranges the materials is very classic, which is Brahms’ way) 

The first mvt has sophisticated, turbulent, fiery, and irrational characteristics because all the crazy keys he went into, created all different color tones between brightness and darkness; distinctive rhythmic combinations brought a special flow of the music. His usage of 3 instruments each at its best—-the piano creates the thick texture, the violin sings at high register and cello sings warm melody in mid-lower register. 

In my improvisation, I used his thematic materials, take the motive or the interval as the inspiration, and use them in the same sequences as the original work. The key relationships between the materials stay the same. Instead of duplicate a sonata form, I hope to achieve a binary form, in which the materials shows two faces, one in the first half, one in the second half. It’ s still same materials, but different way of representing them. I try to apply them on solo violin interestingly therefore I added some very ‘violinistic’ transition parts.

I would love to hear your suggestions and I have some questions regarding to the improvisation and recording process: Because It’s hard for me to both stay in present to improvise and to think about the big structure and the material I should use,I wrote down the basic ideas I want to use first, and I actually improvised in small sections one by one using GarageBand on my ipad(because they bassically can record in 8 bars and then you have to add bars to continue), but the transition doesn’t work well enough(actually it effects the music flow a lot), Do you ever improvise in sections or record anything in sections and put them together? Do you think it’s okay to practice improv in this way? If it is ok, will you recommend any technique relate to it? 

You added reverb! Thanks for that, it sounds good. You have such a beautiful tone on the violin, it’s wonderful to hear it this way, and as usual, your musicality really shines through. The next step, of course, would be to get a better mic. It might be a worthwhile investment to make, especially in these times!

I also think this music is very successful, and thanks for telling me about your process. The result sounds like a collage — different sections stuck together without any transition in between. I personally like the result quite a lot. It’s surprising and feels fresh. Stravinsky, of course, was fond of these sudden shifts between one section and another.

Now, a couple things: first of all, you used Dvorak’s themes, and this is definitely a “surface-level” element of the original piece. So I think this submission would actually have been very appropriate for last week’s assignment, improvising with materials. Indeed, you are taking Dvorak’s materials, and doing something else with them.

This week, the idea is to take a sub-surface idea, and improvise with that. So, for example, Dvorak is using Sonata form, here — that is an underlying structure of the piece. It would have been interesting for you to try improvising a sonata form, although that’s challenging! But I think that if you keep it simple, you could do it. You could make up a first melody, then improvise something that moves to the dominant, and make up a second melody there. If you keep the melodies very simple, you can remember them both. Then use the first theme to improvise a development section, and finally play both the first and second themes in the tonic key to close. Definitely a challenge, but worth a try! It doesn’t have to be fast — you can do it slowly and simply. Find a way to do it where you’re able to do it.

I do want to say, again, that I really enjoyed your submission, so I’m glad that this week’s assignment motivated you to ask questions and to come up with this interesting new music.

As for your question about improvisation: what you describe, improvising in sections, and making a piece by sticking the sections together, I would describe as a type of composition, rather than improvisation. It is using improvisation to compose, which is a very common approach for many composers. I also think it’s a very worthwhile approach for you, since you haven’t done a lot of improvising before. But I encourage you, if you want to keep exploring improvisation, to try to see where the moment can take you, and to find ways to improvise within constraints where your inspiration can flow.

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