Week 2, Improvising with Materials

Class summary

In week 2, we talked about improvising with materials. As we discussed, the idea is to take an existing piece and use some element of it — or multiple elements — to serve as a constraint for an improvisation. 

I brought up examples from my project Goldberg Variations / Variations. A first constraint that pervades all of the variations, and all of my improvisations in this project, is a harmonic form, that of the opening and closing Aria. In each of my improvisations, I’m improvising over this form.

Another constraint: the mood of the variation. In each of my responses, I’m trying to echo the emotional world that Bach creates, but in my own language. In var 5, I’m trying to create something as exuberant and wild as Bach’s variation; in var 13, I’m trying to create something as intimate and contemplative.

Another: every third variation in the Goldbergs is a canon, with the first (var 3) being at the unison, then each subsequent canon being at a rising interval. So var 6 is at the second, var 9 at the third, etc. This I used as another constraint: in my improvisations, I either make up a simple canon at the same interval as Bach, or I use the interval itself as a building block of the improvisation.

Another: taking the technical challenges of some of the virtuosic variations (for example var 17 20, or 26) and finding a way to make them work in an improvisatory context. 

An even simpler constraint: taking motivic / melodic ideas from the variation, and using them in my improvisation, as I do for example in var 19. 

One more: using rhythmic constraints. For example, in variation 16, Bach uses two different time signatures, one for the first half (2/2), and another for the second half (3/8). So, in my response, I decided to do the first half in 5/4, and the second half in 7/4, with a metric modulation in between so that the bar length stays the same. 

I bring up these examples not to tell you what to do, but just to give you an idea of how diverse this approach can be. We are simply talking about reacting to an existing piece of music with improvisation. How you react is up to you, but I do want it to be sufficiently constraining so that the link between the original and your improvisation is perceptible. 

Generally speaking, the link can be melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, emotional, or anything else that you can think of that makes sense to you. 

So, this week, please choose a piece of existing music, preferably short (2 – 3 min), record yourself performing it, then follow it with an improvisation of similar length that uses one or more surface aspects of the piece as constraints. When you submit to me, please explain what it is exactly that you are doing. 

At the simplest level, you could, for example, play Bach’s Two-Voice Invention in C Major, then improvise using the motive that Bach uses throughout the Invention: C D E F D E C G. Or, you could play Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (perhaps only one of the parts, or both if you’re a pianist), and improvise using only that rhythm. But these are only two possibilities among many. Be creative.

PS: if you want to listen to some of the tracks I mention from Goldberg Variations / Variations, you can find the album on Spotify, Apple Music or any of the streaming services, or you can simply download it for free here: https://dantepfer.com/filetransfer/goldbergvarvar.zip

PS2: if you’re interested in further thoughts on the Goldbergs, here are two blog posts: 
Doing It Bachwards: my unexpected Goldberg Variations https://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=444
Sister Canons in the Goldberg Variations https://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=762


Kesem Ninio — Bach Second Solo Suite – Gigue — Trombone

Bach second suite for cello solo – Gigue.

Great choice of a piece, full of character.
Bach: Nice sound; I wonder if the reverb could be maybe 4 or 5dB lower, and maybe a tad longer? It feels like a shortish room reverb — I would advocate for a longer reverb, but less of it.

Improv: Cool! Would’ve liked to hear this with the same mix as the Bach. I like how you explore a larger range and more diverse timbres than in the Bach. It’s very convincing. my only criticism would be that in some ways this is still very close, stylistically, to the Bach. In fact some people might have a tough time telling the difference. Is there some way for you to speak in a more personal language in response? Think of it as giving your own opinion on what you just played. I also would have liked for you to tell me, in your email, what elements of the original you were focusing on. Great job overall, though.

Henry Sherris — Bitsch étude #12 — Trumpet

For this week I chose to use the Bitsch etude #12. Some of the surface features I found were: wide intervals and M7s , grace notes, no tonal feeling but sonority (whole-toney scale parts, fast triplet descending line, staccato (Ben marcato), repeated rhythmic themes, repetition in phrases of 3. I found each time I did a variation I only really focussed on a few and went for a similar mood – in the future I think I could have been more strict with the constraint and exactly what I’m focussing on. The variation I included in the dropbox focuses mainly on the same kind of short rhythms, leaps(M7) and scale sounds.   

Afterwards I was interested in how my improv and original piece sounded together (as the idea was to create a similar sounding piece) which I have included in the dropbox. I thought maybe if it melded together well it might be a good judge of the similarity. I found it hard but cool to listen to and surprised by 00:56 which started to line up coincidentally (even though the tracks were offset and I didn’t use a metronome).

Bitsch: Great source for this exercise, full of specific character. And the atonal nature of it gives you lots of freedom. Your description of what drew you to this is excellent. Nice sound, next time (if you can), try adding a little reverb.

Improv: This is great, and in many ways I can feel right away that you’re owning this, making it up as you go — the difference between something read and something spoken from the heart. This is jazzier, too, which makes it feel like even though the similarities are there, you’re speaking in a different voice from the original, which is a good thing (there’s no point in trying to just reproduce the original, we want a contrasting response). Liked this, and for me it could’ve gone on longer — although i understand you were making the lengths the same, which was part of the constraint. In any case it’s always good to leave them wanting more!

Both together: what a great idea! and in this atonal context, it works really well, I’d say. I would actually say I dig this even more than the two separately! Lovely, and I’m glad you went for this. Very creative. Also the ending of the Bitsch étude gives the whole thing closure, which was missing from your improvisation. Great job.

Gavon Mitchell — Blue Bossa — Guitar

This is my improv of blue bossa. First half is original, second is improv. I used mainly the same chords but did my own thing with them a bit. In the first round through the chords I stay close to the melody and in the second round through I Improv over the chords with a different style than the original. I also decided to switch the feel of the piece. This could be done completely live with a looper pedal I have. I would improv the chords as I did then immediately improv the melodic line. You may share this recording. Thank You!

Original: A lovely, traditional reading of this song, well done. Nice sound, too.

Improv: This is really nice, as the feeling is completely changed from the original. Nice lines and groove, too. I would love, in a further reading, to hear you deconstruct the original even more, by for example taking just pieces of the melody (maybe that opening descending line) and using only that to build your solo. I would love to hear what you suggest, too, with the loop pedal — where you improv the chords as well as the melodic line. What you’ve done here is excellent and I would encourage you to try (as an experiment) getting even further from the traditional jazz improvisation format.

Yixiang Wang — Bach Violin Partita No 1, Courante — Violin

I tried to use the same gestures, same rythmn patterns and slurs to improvise on. 

Original: Beautiful playing! I love this piece, of course. One of my favorites. Do you know the
recording of this by Chris Thile on mandolin? I’d love to hear this with a little bit of reverb. You can add that in Garageband, for example, or any other editing program. A useful skill to have, especially nowadays! Ask a friend if you haven’t done it before. Might be worth taking some highs out of the EQ, too.

Improv: I love this! It feels very natural and expressive. I think it was very smart of you to just improvise using the major scale — a very workable constraint that allowed you to be musical and free.
Great job!

Jacob Leibowitz — Satie Gnossienne #3 — Piano

My goal with the improvisation was to use the opening (and recurring) melodic theme in my improvisation. I also tried to acknowledge where the theme came from using mood, but also distance myself from Satie’s Gnossienne. Throughout the improvisation I was confronted with certain issues such as things becoming too muddy with the pedal. And near the end, I flirt with the aleatoric through my neglect to turn off my cell phone (though I must admit, I really do like it). 

Original: You say you’re a very bad pianist, and this has imperfections of course, but by and large it has a lot of spirit! I’m glad I listened to it. Even with the occasional wrong chords, there’s a patience and a contemplative quality to it that I dig. Do you know that Satie wrote a piece with deliberate mistakes included? i.e. if you play it “correctly”, it sounds like you’re making mistakes. Satie may have dug your interpretation here.

Improv: Very interesting. I can clearly hear the connection to the original, but the language is totally different — atonal and much darker. This is cool. You raise a good question:

Something I was trying to figure out that maybe you can help me understand was why I was able to get at something decent the first time I improvised on this theme, but in later improvisations I kept feeling like I had serious structural deficiencies in my improvisations. (In this take I also felt as though I hit a sweet spot where my chords had a certain amount of intention to them, but my hands also would find decent harmonies when I was focusing on other aspects.)

This is a central difficulty of improvisation. When we are authentically “discovering” something, there’s a naturalness to it that can be very compelling and that can transcend technical issues. I’m afraid that this is a difficult issue to solve (finding that sense of discovery every time), but the first step is to recognize the problem, as you have, and the second is to try to correct it. One thing that helps is to know what you’re doing — i.e. to have full command of the types of chords you’re using and other devices. That way less is left to chance. Another is to take a spiritual approach and find that “level zero” before you start playing every time. I wrote a bit about this topic in my introduction to my interview with Lee Konitz (one of the all time masters of improvisation), here: https://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=424 about 4 minutes in, this starts getting a little long / tiresome for me. Part of the challenge of these improvisations is to not overstay your welcome. “If in doubt, lay out” is a good line to remember. i.e. if you feel you could stop, go ahead and stop. Then again i like what’s happening at 5:30! With this kind of improvisation, we can’t expect to knock it out of the park every time. For some reason it stopped playing at 5:52 so i couldn’t hear the ending.
Nice job here, i can hear a genuine search from you. Keep it up.

Leo Sussman — CPE Bach Solo Flute Sonata — Flute

 I based my improvisation this week mainly on the opening motive of the original piece: a compound melody composed of a “bass” note in the low register followed by several notes of a “soprano” line in the middle-upper register.

Bach: You added reverb! Thank you. Sounds great. Makes a big difference. This is really beautiful playing.

Improv: I like how exploratory this is. I can hear you asking questions, and not just imitating CPE Bach’s style. This is actually a lovely middle ground between the original and pure improvisation — i can clearly hear how the original has evoked a response in you, but in your own language. It’s also very expressive and natural. The ending doesn’t feel 100% satisfying to me, but endings are probably the hardest thing out there! I would encourage you to focus on patience when the moment to end comes around. Here’s a great Nietzsche quote on the topic:

Masters of the first rank are revealed by the fact that in great as well as small matters they know how to end perfectly, whether it is a matter of ending a melody or a thought, or the fifth act of a tragedy or of an action of state. The best of the second rank always become restless as the end approaches and do not manage to slope into the sea in such proud and calm harmony as, for example, the mountains at Portofino – where the bay of Genoa ends its melody.
-Nietzsche 227

Great job, Leo!

Yevanhelina But — Waltz by ukrainian composer (Nijankievski?) — Piano

I chose a piece by a Ukrainian composer (I have attached the music sheet here), this is a waltz.  I took a short break after the main lead and started improvising (I think you will hear).  As a basis, I took the lower part of the part, that is, the main harmony, and I did the malody for improvisation on the main motive, but slightly modified, that is, I did something like the variation.

Original: Nice playing, and nice sound! This is on a keyboard, right? You did a good job getting the sound to sounds natural. Good choice of a piece to improvise on.

Improv: This is a good choice of a harmonic form to play on. And you found some very nice melodies. I also appreciate the searching and introspective quality of what you play here. My only criticism: what you’re playing here still sounds quite close to the original in terms of style. I would be interested to hear you depart further from it, so that it sounds like a real response, in your own voice, rather than a kind of imitation. Does that make sense? I enjoyed listening to your playing here — thank you!

Brandon Choi — Bordogni’s Melodious Etude 2 — Trumpet

I performed Bordogni’s Melodious Etude 2 (originally vocalises for tenor, then transcribed for trombone but eventually propagated to all instruments). I took the etude’s predilection to travel to close key centers (V and IV, mainly) as well as the highlighted interval of the major sixth to connect my response. I felt that in terms of emotive qualities I wasn’t necessarily as close as I would like to be. I tried several takes after this one but couldn’t quite get to that place while retaining surface-level connections.

Great sound! Nice mix and recording.
Original: Beautiful playing, love hearing your tone and musicality here. Really lovely.

Improv: I can really hear the link with the original here, it’s clear, and I also can hear you departing from it, especially in terms of range. and towards the end, I can hear some jazz inflections creep in as well, which is great. Because what we want is a response from you, not an imitation, and in some ways I would’ve liked to hear this go even farther from the original, so that there’s no possible mistaking them. Still, your musicality and tone shine through.

Also, I’m in the process of working out a polyphonic answer to this assignment! I’ve selected Bach’s Crab Canon and am trying to improvise first going forward, then a response, then overdub the retrograde and subsequent response. It’s proving challenging to not only respond with no active go-between among the two improvised parts (only the second is listening and responding), but also just to improvise a canon at the 2nd. It’s a work in progress — I’ll send it to you once I have something satisfactory if that’s okay.

—> excited to hear this!
Great job, Brandon.

Maxine Troglauer — Sarabande from Bach Cello Suite Nr5 — Trombone

I chose the Sarabande from Bach Cello Suite Nr5, it’s pretty common by now to play it on trombone. I played the original in the first recording (I repeated only the first part) and the second recording is just a second improv.For the improv I actually had three main ideas:
1) focusing on the dance-like feeling of 3 beats a bar with emphasis on the second beat
2) focusing on harmonic structure that I identified as : A Part: Ab – G7 – G7 – Cmin – Cmin – Bb7- Bb7 – Eb7                                                                                                          
B Part: Eb7 Gmin C7 Fmin Cmin7 G7 C(or Ab, not sure) G7 Cmin G7 G7 Cmin
3) taking the idea of retuning through the scordatura technique (retuning the A string lower to a G string), which Bach initially used for this Suite and retuning my valve – I didn’t spend enough time yet on this idea to really develop it, that’s why I didn’t use it in my recording. When recording today I found it hard again to focus really on one constraint, like you advised in your previous email – but I definitely see the path these exercise and thoughts can take me! So thanks for sharing one more time and looking forward to Tuesday!

Original: Lovely playing, so nice to hear this on trombone! Also very nice recording here, a very tasteful amount of reverb. Thank you for that. Lovely playing; occasionally it feels a little sleepy to me, like i could have used more forward motion / momentum.

Improv: Really dig the sonic variety here, and it’s great that you brought that to it because it really differentiates your improvisation from the original. As before, i think — and as you point out in your email — that it would be great to hear an improvisation from you where you focus really strongly on one constraint. Your creativity seems to always be there, so i think there’s no danger of you sounding boring. So the more you’re specific in your constraints, the more powerful it’ll be.

Han Geul Lee — Danza del Viejo Boyero — Piano

I will discuss some ideas I used in the improvisation following the Danza del viejo boyero:

  1. Juxtaposition of black keys vs white keys
  2. Quasi-cluster chords
  3. Moto perpetuo dance with a few interruptions, last one being the end of the piece. 
  4. A sense of constantly rising up and dropping down suddenly, only to begin rising up again. 
  5. Syncopated rhythms
  6. The very last system there are open guitar strings followed by a short chromatic passage which leads to the low e staccato, all of which only happen once in the entire piece. I grew quite fond of those last few bars as they seem so random and happen only once, so I thought I would use those as much as I can. They form the rhythmic backbone for my improvisation.

Once I had the piece learned, I tried to improvise on it every time I reached the end. Often times I found myself still looking at the score after the last bar, looking for guidance in my improvisation. Looking back, I felt that I loosely followed the score backwards while adding more and more material unto the improvisation.

Original: Great choice of a piece! So full of character, but also with a lot of possible freedom in your responses. Lovely playing, and great that this motivated you to learn a new piece. Dig it!

Improv: I love it! You’re really taking the original and deconstructing it — I can hear the
connections clearly, but there’s no way that i would mistake your improv for the original. Great how you took that bassline element and used it as a recurring theme. Shows restraint and organization on your part. Really excellent work here.

Austin Zhang — Movement 6 (Minuetto II) from Cello Suite No. 1 — Sax

Original: Nice playing, and nice sound! Some occasionally questionable intonation, which would be worth checking in on.

Improv: Lovely playing, I’d love to hear you do more with this. Very short. But I can clearly hear how you’re responding and reacting to the original.

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