Thursday, April 20, 2006

Groovy, Baby . . . (Ostinatos, Part I)

Now back to the subject of improvising music with a creative focus that incorporates a very small amount of musical material, such as one, two, or three notes.

We've also touched on the subject of repetition, something that is an important factor in all music, and that can be very useful in improvisation. In Western music, we are rather obsessed with the changes in music. Contrasts and developments.

But this is not a universal. Much traditional African music, for example, is based on the continual repetition of rhythmic units which, although fairly simple in and of themselves, form a complex, sophisticated musical web when combined with other parts.

Classical musicians call a short pattern repeated over and over an ostinato. Say the word "ostinato" over and over and over, with a very clear rhythmic pronunciation. That's it! You are performing an ostinato. An ostinato ostinato, if you will.

Jazz and rock and pop musicians use the less pretentious and much more inviting term, "groove." You want to play an "ostinato" or a "groove"? Well, I think I'd rather get in the groove. But I'm a classical musician. I think "ostinato." And since my primary audience is other classical musicians, I'll use that word here. God forbid we give up all pretention!

There are two great uses for an ostinato.

One is to simply play it, over and over. It can be a form of meditation. It's especially great to do with a hand drum. Find your rhythm, repeat, repeat, repeat until you enter another state of consiciousness. (I'm not kidding, either. Hand drummers often speak of "drummer's high" or being in a light "drumming trance.")

You can let the pattern evolve, or "morph," as Mikael Elsila would say. Or keep it steady. Either way, it is a powerful practice.

The other great use for an ostinato is as an accompanimnet for a solo, over (or under) it.

The simplest, and one of my favorite, ostinato patterns is a simple, steady beat on one note.

For example, take a drum (whether it's one designed to be a drum, or a "drum substitute" such as a pot or wastebasket turned upside down), and tap a simple, steady beat on it with your hand or a stick, spoon, mallet, or whatever. And then with your voice, improvise rhtyhms over it.

You can sing on different pitches, the same pitch, or no pitch. Just listen inside yourself and give voice to whatever rhythm or melody wants to come out.

Don't try. Just allow. Don't try to make it "good," or complicated, or sophisticated, or anything. Just listen for the ideas - and let them flow.

This works great on the piano (or electric keyboard), too. Pick a note, any note. Play a steady pulse, using that one note as a drum. And let your other hand explore. Perhaps you'll improvise a rhythm on one note. Perhaps a melody will come. Again, don't try. Just listen. Let it happen.

One need not be limited to a steady pulse of one beat, of course. You can use other rhythmic patterns. You can use more than one note.

The pitfall I see happen with my college students sometimes, though, is trying to make it too complex. Just that simple repeated pulse makes a great foundation for improvisation.

It's, well, groovy baby. . .


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