Improvisation is fleeting and ephemeral; but what stays in our mind after an improvisation, and how can we return to an idea, in a subsequent improvisation, to build on our discoveries in music and performance?
Improvisation is not the opposite of composition. There will always be decisions and conditions which affect the music before it happens; and even decisions made in the moment form as it were a score for what happens subsequently. By developing a keen awareness and control over these, we can open up a richer palate for improvisation. With the DaMu Collective, in our residency in Cloud Danslab, The Hague, we explored this idea, through practicing with the idea of a ‘frame’. The metaphor of ‘frame’ is from photography; focus or zoom in on a few parameters. The metaphor is also from construction, whereby we make a ‘framework’ or structure of important perameters for the improvisation. It also has a psychological aspect: how do you work with perception while improvising- what is the ‘frame’ of one’s attention, which affects how one perceives the piece? While using frames, we explored four broader aspects of improvisation: silence, form and musical material, space and perception, and interaction and reaction.
Music starts with silence, dance with stillness.
Silence and stillness enables good timing, playing at the ‘right’ moment, so that the starts are intentional, and the ends are meaningful.
But, silence can also be powerful its own right. What quality does the silence have? Is it listening to the echo of what has just been played? Simply being present in the moment with no anticipation? Being present as an active listener on stage? The silence of expectation that something will happen? Silence where there is internal music happening but not sounding externally? Silence which is simply a breath or articulation within a phrase?
Silence or stillness does not mean being totally fixed or rigid. We found it useful to think in terms of background and foreground. Where movement is involved, for example, walking and stopping, or very slight movement related to listening, could still be considered stillness, background , relative to the sound or action in the foreground.
Frame: Play each a defined number of phrases, eg. 4 (in movement music, or both), the rest of the time be silent, and explore the quality of the silence.
Material and Form
Three challenges of improvising are; knowing what one’s own material is, so that you are able to repeat it or use it; Being aware of everyone else’s contribution, and not repeating or imitating it (unless, it is a definite choice). Being aware of the resultant rhythm of the whole ensemble so that,
as a group, you know what are the musical and physical characteristics which make it what it is, are able to ontrast together, and, at a later stage, to come back to it.
secret code- Keep one’s own material. Use only that material, combined with silence.
Islands- use the stage as a score. Each performer determines individually what music is associated with particular places, and plays with the same musical ideas each time one returns to a specific place.
Rondo- creating a form together, for example, ABABA.
Space and Focus
Although sound is always present throughout the room, small physical changes affect both the quality of sound, and the type of music that it suggests for the improvisation. Where is the sound or attention directed in space? Is it directed to the floor, to the wall, to the ceiling? We experimented with imagining focal points in space, and exploring where in relation to this focal point we are, and how we connect to it. We explored four qualities of connection:
String-imagining a string connecting us to the point, how is it physically connected, which part of the body is connected. There is a lot of difference, if the finger, or the entire instrument, for example is connected. Imagine a string pulling the body, or pulling the string with the body. Such an image enables us to define space and allows the body to follow, without ‘doing’ anything or pushing.
Eye- the attention is visual, where are we looking in relation to the point, as it were wanting to gain the attention of the focal point.
Webcam- avoiding the point, turning away from the point or going behind the point.
Fiords- Imagine a line towards the focal point, where on the line are we towards the point? What is the difference if we are close or far from the point, away from the line or on this line? This quality of connection enables us to play with creating the illusion of perspective.
The idea of focal points can also be applied in purely musical terms- What is the main attention or focus of the music? Is it broad, a lot of elements, or narrow, just one idea? Then, other musical elements can be defined in relation to that.
Reaction and Interaction
The types of focus can applied physically to how we relate to other performers. You can choose a performer or idea join with, like the string. You can choose to get the attention of another performer, like the eye, so it becomes a conversation. You can choose to shadow them, imitating, but not literally, playing with being in their foreground or background, like the fiords. Or, avoid another performer, as in the webcam, like hide and seek.
Joining at the same time:
Start together when one person starts, and stop together. When playing together, notice if you are playing in counterpoint, or in unison. Then, start when the other person stops, and stop when the other person starts. Depending on the number of performers, it is possible to experiment with constantly changing groups, playing off each other. At each beginning and end of each phrase, if you are silent, there is a decision, to start, or remain silent for that group; and if you are playing, there is a decision or to stop, or continue playing in the next phrase.
Play alternate phrases. As in a real conversation, one might agree, comment on, disagree, make a contrasting argument. Think of phrasing- How it starts, and how this affects the expectation of how it will end, and if the end indeed meets this expectation, or is surprising. Think of pacing- short phrases and long phrases. How ‘polite’ is the conversation? Is there time for listening to the end of the other person’s phrase, or does it overlap or interrupt?
Shadow and reflection:
The most natural response, is to imitate. But imitation need not be repetition. A shadow, for example, changes its position to the original object, and is a different size, according to the light. It is also the opposite of the object, as there is no colour. A reflection too, changes its size and position, but also its colour, and its definition, according to the light. This effect can be created in music and dance, by imitating, but at a different time, expanding and contracting, or imitating only some things.
Stasis and Intrusion:
The term stasis comes from theatre, and refers to a stable and recognisable situation. If there is an intrusion, when someone enters your space, with something completely different, what is your response? The most natural response is to change immediately, or to try to ignore it. More interesting can be, to see what effect the intruder has on the music you are playing at the moment, this means keeping your material, while at the same time, acknowledging the intruder and changing your perspective, trying to avoid the intruder as in the webcam idea. This will in turn lead to a new stasis, a new stable situation.
There are so many elements involved in performance, that it is almost impossible to keep track of all at once, and we found the idea of frames are a very useful tool to bring together and focus attention on a few elements as one entity. Exploring different frames opens up new possibilities for performance. However, these frames are only a few ideas, and they can be many more, what is perhaps most valuable is the technique of creating and using frames itself, rather than using the few described here. Furthermore the frame is only a tool, not the only tool- there are many more tools to be discovered, and the frame is not necessarily a recipe for a successful performance, although it can contribute to one. The frame is not the same as a composition, instant or otherwise; a composition can consist of many frames, and what happens with the frames, or what comes because of the frame, is in the end most important, rather than the frame itself.