Sunday, November 18, 2007

Iowa Concert: Parts 2 and 3

U of Iowa Improv Performance, Part I

After a good bit of trial and error, I have finally managed to get video from my camcorder all the way to YouTube. Here's the first part (2 more to come) of the solo improvisation set I did at the University of Iowa School of Music Contemporary Improvisation Weekend two weeks ago (November 3). (I've posted this on my personal blog as well.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Greg Heffernan

While we are all waiting for me to get my video loaded onto YouTube (I know you are probably losing sleep over it), here's a very enjoyable cello/piano improv I just found there. The cellist is Greg Heffernan, working with his friend Kamel.

It's interesting that many of the comments on YouTube are skeptical that this is actually an improvisation. When people improvise a lot, they have no difficulty creating pieces with a beginning, middle, and end on the spot. Once you are an experienced improviser, it's easy to believe. These two have a very nice rapport.

Turns out there are quite a few videos if you search "cello improvisation" at YouTube.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Recording Improvisations

I had an email earlier today from a new friend at the University of Iowa regarding recording improvisations and then discussing them. This is a great thing to do--if you are a teacher running an improv class, for a group to do themselves, and to do with your own solo improvisations. You can then reflect on the process, and also assess the improvisation as a piece. I just watched the video of my solo portion of Sunday night's improvisation concert at the University of Iowa. I loved the experience of playing it. Watching the tape, there is much I like, and much I've learned in terms of what I might do next time. I'll be posting the video on YouTube as soon as I learn how to get it there.

The important thing with recording and listening/assessing is to do it as a way of increasing awareness, not to find fault with and invalidate what you did (and yourself along with it). That's what I have to watch out for--my tendency to seize on a fault (real or imagined) and then use it to beat myself up with.

So it's important, I've learned, to approach this with self-acceptance. What did you like? What different choices might you make next time? And if you think it sucked, and it did, so what? Do another one!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Darling Conversations

Shortly after I began improvising on my own, I discovered the recordings of David Darling. The simple yet beautiful solo improvisations on his Tao of Cello album were important and empowering to me: an improvisation based on a simple idea, not harmonically complex, not highly developed, could be beautiful and worthwhile and enjoyable to listen to, and "good enough" to be released by a label. Many of David's other CDs, especially his multitrack recordings (mostly on the ECM label) are much more "sophisticated." For years, though, it was the simple solo cello on that Tao of Cello album that I most enjoyed, of all his work.

Shortly after discovering David, I discovered Music for People, the organization promoting self-expressive improvisation that promotes a holistic, humanistic, approach to making music. David remains the artistic director; others have done the organizing and documentation, and thousands of lives have been changed. While I was perfectly comfortable doing solo improvisations by the time I attended my first MfP workshop, I was terribly afraid I wouldn't be able to improvise with others.

Music for People was a revelation; it has had as much impact on me as any other experience I've had in my life. I think it's accurate to say that my most powerful musical, spiritual, and personal growth as an adult has come from my participation in Music for People.

An advance copy of The Darling Conversations, a new 3-CD set of David discussing the Music for People philosophy with Julie Weber, the chair of the MfP Musicianship and leadership program, has been made available to me. Along with what I find to be genuinely profound insights into the relationship between human beings and their creativity, there are numerous musical examples, all recorded live during workshops or in casual recording sessions at workshops. (At least one is me.) The music is beautiful and touching and most of it is exquisitely recorded.

Listening to these recordings has been like attending a MfP workshop. I've been reminded of so much of the core, loving, empowering, embracing philosophy, as well as how that approach is manifested in many of the powerfully simple starting points and musical games David ad others in the MfP community have developed.

I can't recommend it highly enough. I'm having DePauw's music library order it, and I'm going to order a few sets, anyway, for holiday gifts. I'm also using it with my improvisation students, and will write more about that later.

Anyone who is interested in Music for People, in improvisation as a path of healing, and in ways to begin or enhance your own original music making, would do well to order this set. Download the sample tracks; I think you may find yourself as excited as am I.

In Iowa

I'm at the University of Iowa this weekend, and have started blogging about it here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What Do I Want to Create?

As I mentioned below, the book is flowing again. A very different form emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, and its working well. The creative process is like that. You wrestle and wrestle with something, give up, and then, when you least expect it, the idea appears.

Many people talk and write about the creative process as a form of problem solving. You present your imagination with a problem, and a creative solution emerges. Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance and Creating (whose writing style can be dismissively arrogant when it comes to others' views, but from whom I've learned a lot) stresses that creating is different than problem solving. Fritz's writings have taught me that "what do I want to create?" is much more powerful than "how do I solve this problem?" The former question opens up possibilities, while the latter more often limits them.

In music, free improvisation to me often feels more the answer to "what do I want to create?" while idiomatic improv, especially when one is learning the vocabulary of a style, is more of a problem-solving process. A keyboard player learning figured bass may ask herself, "here is a chord progression; how do I realize it?" You can often hear jazz students "playing the changes," carefully outlining the chords and using the appropriate scales while not expressing much. It's very left brained.

When someone has mastered an idiomatic language, then idiomatic improvisation can be as expressive and spontaneous as "free" improvisation. Writing in English was once a struggle, when I was a child. Now I can write anything I can speak, with the only impediment the speed of my 2-fingered typing. (If only I had taken that touch typing course in high school!)

Hmm. I was going to write about something else, but this came out. I encourage improvisation in myself and others by saying, "play the music that wants to be played." It seems that it's also important to "write what wants to be written."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Barnhill and Gurga, each improvising in concerts

Two wonderful young classical pianists whom I am privileged to know gave performances yesterday combining improvisation and classical music, perhaps simultaneously.

Eric Barnhill
participated in a recital at the International Dalcroze Institute in Boston. From an email he sent to friends and colleagues:
I'm here at the Dalcroze Summer Institute in Boston and the institute put on a public performance tonight. I decided, especially since it would be a friendly audience, to do my first public improvisation in concert. I was listed on the program as "Three Chopin Etudes With Improvised Preluding" and I asked three different people in the audience to pick their favorite etude from the op. 10 set (a gambit that wouldn't work on a more general audience obviously) and improvised preludes into and between the three etudes. I also talked a bit about what I was doing and why.

Naturally, as with anything that would be tremendously important to me to record, I had major audio problems. Anything above mezzo-forte blew the levels on the condenser mic I put out in the crowd. What is this, 1975? The etudes being loud and fast, some parts are mostly distortion - but you'll be able to hear the improvs and figure out what I did.
Eric is passionate about the widespread nineteenth-century practice of playing improvised preludes before composed pieces. Carl Czerny, pupil of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt, wrote a whole book about it. Eric's working on reviving the art. Listen to his first public go at this.

Meanwhile . . . .

At 7:30 PM here in Greencastle, perhaps around the same time as Eric's performance, the wonderful young pianist Stephanie Gurga played a recital which began with an extended free improvisation, and ended with an encore that began and ended with the Chopin "Minue Waltz" and also had "Someday My Prince Will Come" mixed in. Stephanie called the recital "Songs I learned while my mom was cookin' dinner," and in it she combined reminiscences about growing up, practicing as her mother cooked, with performances of pieces which had special meaning for her.

Stephanie, a DePauw grad who has been doing our publicity and marketing this year, has much technique, and an incredible ear, a brilliant mind, and an expansive imagination. She has embraced improvisation and what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the responsibility to be creative when she makes music. This recital was her "farewell to Greencastle" piano performance. She moves to Germany soon to continue her performing career and do further study.

I'll post audio clips soon, if she'll let me. The concert, both informal and intense, was remarkable. She played with an engaging freedom that might drive some work-concept addicts nuts, but captured the audience. Christopher Small, the author of Musicking and other books, says (I'm paraphrasing) that performances don't exist to present works, but works exist to give performers something to perform. And that the right question isn't "what is the meaning of this work?" but "what is the meaning of this performance in this place and at this time?"

As I experienced Stephanie's concert, it was so clear to me that this was music-making and communication that had a very specific meaning in this place, at this time, and for these people. A particularly enjoyable concert for some. A bittersweet final mutual embrace for others.

The recording sounds good. But the human experience of being together was so special that I find myself reluctant in some ways to listen to it or even preserve it (though I will).

Thanks. I'm lightening up

Thanks for the encouraging comments and email messages.

Let's see. I had a very busy semester, at the end of which (in May) I put together an 11-concert summer chamber music series, raised a bunch of money for it, then performed in the first concert, packed my office for the move to our new building (including sorting through mounds of stuff and discarding 18 years of built-up, unneeded paper), did a week of recording sessions, had a testy spat with a colleague, and taught a week of improvisation workshops. Oh, and some of my cello majors stayed a week after graduation for a cello "boot camp," which took much time and energy, and one is staying for the summer, having multiple lessons per week. And my son graduated from high school, we had the big party. Then my exchange-student son from Hong Kong went home, and we first had a big party for him. And a very close relative's marriage is falling apart, and I'm close to both spouses, and that's been tearing me up.

So the last month or so has not exactly been a vacation!

I suppose it's understandable that my brain needs a little rest before reorganizing and rewriting my writings to shape them into "the book." It's hard to give myself permission to rest and have some fun, but my brain is demanding it.

Meanwhile, looking at this creative process I'm engaged in, I notice two things.

One is that the difference between blogging about improvisation and putting a book together is about the same as improvising and then listening to recordings of those improvisations and turning them into a coherent composition, or the general difference between improvising and composing. Think of how difficult the composition process was for Beethoven, who, somewhat paradoxically, was, by all reports, one of the greatest improvisers in the history of western art music.

The second, which follows from the first, is that putting together a book requires a sort of plotting and planning and organization that I haven't yet done.

So I'm relaxing about the whole thing, and giving up on rushing it. The brain, or certain parts of it, needs some rest. The project is still gestating; the baby won't be born until it's ready. And there will surely be more morning sickness and bloatedness and mood swings, and the labor may be long and the birth pangs nearly unbearable.

No wonder so many real writers drink too much or shoot themselves. Since I don't drink much, and plan to teach until I'm 80 or older, I'll just be a bit more patient with myself.

Monday, June 25, 2007

More on not getting going

I have always had difficulties bringing projects to completion. I get blocked by perfectionism and fear of rejection and ridicule. How many CD projects have I started and not completed? I get to a certain point and my mind just won't focus on it anymore.

I've decided to be as open as possible about my process because I know I'm far from the only one who has this sort of thing come up; perhaps writing about how I work through this will help someone else. And I've been getting some nice messages of support and some good suggestions, all of which are welcome.

Perhaps what I need is a good editor. I've written a lot of stuff, about 150 pages. Surely in the midst of that is a good short book. (If you want to read it, send me an email, ericedberg @ gmail dot com, and I'll send you the file with a table of contents and everything.)

I wrote earlier today about clarifying my intended audience, purpose, etc., but I can't get much done. It's not that I don't have the mental energy to write; I'm thinkng and blogging like crazy, reading, watch improv-related DVDs, etc. This has triggered all sorts of feelings of depression and inadequacy, not uncommon to writers, I understand, and I even created a private blog where I'm working out that stuff (and a search for a new therapist may be on the way, too.

Part of what's going on is that I love the process of spontaneous writing, what I can do in a blog. What's most blogging if not improvising? And the thing about improvisations is that they are just that, quick, ephemeral, spontaneous, usually quickly forgotten, and rarely if ever reshaped and remolded. It's about the process, not a product.

Now I've improvised a lot about improvisation. But now taking those improvisations and turning them into a book, a composition, something with form, something revised, something perfected, well it seems both daunting and, actually boring.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, it was much the same way, although that thing could be writen formally and dryly and I knew no one but my supervisory committee, and perhaps a few other doctoral students looking for models, would ever read it. I felt no pressure to make it interesting or compelling.

Am I just bored with it? Am I just not that interested in writing a book any longer? Will some part of me just not allow myself to complete a big project?

I did write some introductory material today, and I went through and labeled most of the posts here, to make it easier to categorize and organize them.

I have a friend who is a real-life professional writer who writes a column in a major magazine and publishes books and all that. Since he manages to finishe the sort of thing I've started, maybe he can give me some advice. Or at least empathy.

Audience and purpose

To pull together all the material I've written here and elsewhere on improvisation, I need to have a clear audience in mind. One thing that's had me stuck is not knowing for whom I want to write. In the blog version, I've been writing primarily to myself and a variety of real and imagined readers. In the book version, there needs to be a specific audience in mind.

I don't see where I actually need to write a heck of a lot more than I have already. I have 150 double-spaced pages in the most recent compilation. The main points are there. It's a matter of organizing, editing, and where necessary filling in some gaps or adding (hopefully non-superfluous) detail.

This is the audience I've been wanting to write for: instrumental music teachers (and their older students), especially private teachers, who know there is a lot of talk going on about improvisation (what with the NASM standards and primary/secondary National Standards for Music Education), would like their students to be able to improvise, but don't improvise themselves, weren't encouraged or taught to improvise in their own educations, and don't know where to begin.

For me, there needs to be a clear sense of making-the-world-a-better-place purpose. And now that I think about it, a long time ago I developed a clear sense that one of my purposes in life is to bring Music for People approaches to music-making to the traditional music-education world. Maybe that's the key, as well as what I know the best: bringing MFP-style improv to traditional music education. Organized that way, "how-to," music history, and personal experience can all fit. My personal experience can be relevant in a way that isn't just a staring-at-my-navel sort of thing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Stuck . . .

I am totally blocked! Or I just can't get into it. Perhaps there's still some end-of-semester, start-of-summer-concert-series burnout going on.

Oh well, it will start to flow. Meanwhile, I watched a Bobby McFerrin DVD yesterday (how wonderfully inspiring), started Christopher Small's book Music, Society, Education (I've become quite a Small fan over the past year), and squeezed out a bit of new writing--nothing worth posting, though.

So I'm blogging about the process of pulling things together, and we'll see if this helps get things unstuck. Right now, it's really indecision. What form do I want the final project to take? What audience do i want it to reach?

The more philosophical it is, the fewer the actual musicians who might read it. The more personal it is, the more it risks becoming a stare-at-your-navel sort of thing in which I wallow around in episodes of depression and self-pity. And for some reason i can't get the "how to" sort of thing going.

Well, there are far worse fates than sitting around, reading, blogging, and considering directions for a writing project while still receiving a salary all summer.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What I'll do on my summer vacation . . .


It's summer "vacation." I have two months in which to take the material in this blog (and other things I've written) and edit it, revise it, rewrite it, etc., into the book it is meant to be and for which DePauw has given me extra money and some teaching release time over the last three years.

I meant to write a pretty straightforward, mostly objective text to use in improvisation-related courses. My own courses, and anyone else's if they are interested. And part of me wants me to write that book.

Whenever I try to write that one, though, I get blocked. What wants to come out are these personal reflections and commentaries. So I guess I'll just have to go with that flow. Which will make things easier, of course, since I can mostly edit and revise, rather than rewriting things from scratch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Gabriela Montero begins podcasting

There are now two Gabriella Montero podcasts available; you can also subscribe to them through Itunes (where I found them).

She says in the first that no one before her had ever made a totally improvised piano recording. Keith Jarrett might take exception to that. Perhaps she meant no classical pianist ever did this before.

Her improvisations are more crossover than classical though. Her improvised music is what I call "polyidiomatic," in that she draws on an eclectic assortment of styles. She's not an idiomatic improviser, such as Robert Levin, who can keep to a composer-specific language. Levin, though, improvises embellishments and cadenzas, not (at least in his recordings) entire pieces. This is not a criticism, just an observation. I think polyidiomatic improvisation is the way of the future, although historically "correct" improvisation has its role as well.

In her first podcast, she talks about making her Bach and Beyond album, in which the producer supplied "easy versions" of famous Bach themes on which she then improvised, and the general practice of basing an improvisation on a composed piece (or tune)--something she does in her concerts.

She speaks about feeling an emotion she's "given to portray . . . my mind works in a way that nothing happens in my mind when I improvise. It doesn't go through my head, it goes through a different place." That is a great description of what many improvisers experience.

Anyway, the podcasts are well worth a listen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

With kids like this, there's some sort of future for classical music

The eminent pianist, scholar, and author Charles Rosen was on the DePauw campus this past weekend to give a lecture and recital. Nearly 80, he plays beautifully and more important interestingly, and once warmed up continues to have amazing technical facility.

The lecture was, to me, fascinating, and to some others difficult to follow, if nevertheless impressive. Rosen speaks without notes, and goes off on plenty of tangents. He often sat down at the piano and illustrated passages from the keyboard literature, symphonies, and operas. I wasn't sure how many of the students, including a few local high-school students and some visiting campus for our annual piano competition for high-school students would sustain interest during the more esoteric portions of the lecture.

At the following evening's recital, a young friend (16 0r 17) came up to me before the recital and told me how exciting and inspiring the talk was. And he doesn't play piano (much, anyway), he sings. "Ah," I warned him, "you are talking like a music major."

I've seen this guy grow up. Seeing him become enthralled with classical music over the last year or so has been a joy. When it grabs you, it grabs you.

Eric Barnhill improvises on Chopin and Mozart

Eric Barnhill has recently posted two interesting sets on his "Daily Improvisation" piano blog. Chopin, with improvised interludes, and also Mozart's extremely simple published cadenza for Piano Concerto No. 23, K 488, and two of his own.

As Eric explains quite well, it is very unlikely that Mozart himself would have performed something as elementary as the published cadenza. It was probably meant as something for amateurs of little skills to play. It's a great example of the fact that many early published cadenzas were meant to supply amatuer muscians with something to play, not to limit what an accomplished artist might do.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

There are sound clips

Gottagopractice commented on the previous post that she'd like to actually hear something. Well, the whole "Just Musicking" concert was recorded. As soon as I get permission from the students, I'll post links to the MP3 files. Meanwhile, I'm trying to demonstrate respect for intellectual property rights for the students.

And this reminds me that after my website meltdown of some time ago, I never got the recordings of my own improvisations reposted. Oops. I gave myself my own permission some time ago!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Just Musicking, No Score

Ah, spring break. After eight weeks of classes in this spring semester, my DePauw students--and I--are exhausted.

In the midst of exhausting outselves, though, we've done some interesting things. The members of my "Improvised Chamber Music" class put on a performance Tuesday evening. They chose 9:30 PM as a starting time, as a way to attract more students. 7:30 PM is the standard School of Music evening concert time. Great for adults, but, as my students explained, a bit before younger people start waking up and hitting their evening energy. (This helps explain why students the students in my 9:00 AM class often look as if their brains are still in bed.)

We called the concert "Just Musicking, No Score." It was all free improvisation. The 10 students determined in advance which subgroups would be playing, and in what order. They had decided that two of the pieces would be done to poems; that two would be based on prompts from the audience; and that the opening piece would start with one person on the stage, who would be joined be the others, one-by-one, who would then exit one-by-one; and that the final piece would be an open jam.

Why "Just Musicking"? The word musicking was coined by Christoper Small, and the concept is the focus of his book of the same name. Small emphasizes the act of making and responding to music. Like Richard Tarusikin (Text and Act), and Lydia Goehr (The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works), Small helps us understand that many classical musicians have become obsessed with the text (score) of "works," to the point that we forget that it is the human music making, the interraction between musicians, and between musicians and audience. Small proposes making "music" into a verb. "To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composition), or by dancing."

The idea of musical "works," totally composed, finalized, fixed-for-all-time, and unchanging, is, Goehr explains, not only unique to Western art music but also a fairly recent development, having come into full force only in the nineteenth century.

In my Improvised Chamber Music class, I coach the students in making music with each other. With just an hour a week together (plus time they spend on their own outside of class), we don't focus on improvisation based on chord progressions. Instead, the following principles are encouraged:
  • There are no "wrong" notes. (Sometimes there are surprises.)
  • Say "yes" to your own instincts and intuitions, and to the ideas introduced by others.
  • Listen and respond to what others are doing.
  • Express yourself.
  • Be emotionally honest.
  • Be aware of the following roles: soloing, accompanying, being in dialogue.
  • Listen for the end.
  • Less can be more.
  • Focus on developing a musical idea (repetition and development) as well as introducing new ideas (contrast).
I'll describe Tuesday's concert in my next post.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My other improv blog

My book-writing process is in a phase where I'm working out complicated thoughts in a way that doesn't lend itself well to blogging. I am teaching a course this semester at DePauw called Improvisation in Western Art Music.

The course has its own blog. And this week I have started writing a daily synopsis of what we do and discuss. The course is a cross between a series of improvisation workshops and a music-history class. I'm a big believer in learning about improvisational practices by improvising. It is a challenge to manage/facilitate; I think it's working pretty well, and it seems that the students do as well (at least most of them!).

The synopses are not just descriptions of what we did. They also include my own reflections on what we've covered in the readings.