Navigating Contexts

Thanks for the comments last week. I’m feeling a lot better and I’ll be smiling again sometime this year!

I rehearsed with the HGT Trio today for our upcoming performance at the 21st-Century Schizoid Series at the Cornelia Street Café this Monday. The group consists of alto saxophone, 6-string upright bass, and drum set. We’ll be playing a set of music where all of our instruments are electronically enhanced and another set without electronic alteration (except to amplify the bass). The two sets are through-composed, but mostly improvised. We ran into an interesting problem, easily solved, but one I’d like to share.

We’ve been playing as a group for about a year and at first we created very long pieces that morphed from one idea to the next, but a decision was made early on to work on shorter pieces that focus on a single idea with the goal of presenting something palatable to a broader audience than just ourselves. This agenda allows us to play well-known pieces as well as free improvisations in our new home base at the Queen’s Vic (Wednesdays at 8pm) without putting off the jazz “purists” who are regulars there. But for Cornelia Street, we didn’t want to come in playing like it was a “jazz gig,” so I put together two 9-movement pieces, or sets, that only specify instrument combinations and a very general tempo assignment during tutti sections.

The problem came when we rehearsed the acoustic set, with no electronic alterations other than amplification of the instruments’ natural sound. Because we’ve been playing almost exclusively with electronic signal processing, we found ourselves at a loss for what to do. But on the second run-through, we were playing in ways we hadn’t before. I liken it to how, when you practice an instrument that isn’t your primary instrument for an extended period of time, and then return to your primary instrument, new ideas emerge that would have never come about if all you played was your primary instrument. Only it happened as a group.

Has anyone else had this kind of experience? I’d like to hear about it and how you think it works.

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One thought on “Navigating Contexts

  1. mclaren

    Changing your tools offers one of the most powerful ways of changing your music, in my experience. When I started composing computer music (acoustically compiled outside of real time) using Csound 21 years ago, the results sounded radically different from the other music I’d been producing until then.

    Forcing yourself to forgo certain tools or restricting yourself to certain others in my experience can produce veritable explosions of creativity. Examples include changing the tuning you use (what happens if you restrict yourself to a non-octave just intonation tuning based entirely on ratios of 37, say?) or changing the physical way you make music (improvising live using certain rule-sets, say, as compared to composing outside of real time on paper) or changing the basic musical elements you allow yourself to use (restricting yourself entirely to blocks of broken tuplets in various time signatures like 11 in the time of 7 or 13 in the time of 7, for example, using a MIDI sequencer).

    Kenneth Gaburo used to induce his students to produce radically new-sounding pieces by giving ‘em bowls of sand or water or rough rocks or smooth pebbles and then having ‘em compose pieces based on the tacticle sensations produced by running their hands through ‘em. Every piece sounded different, but, amazing enough, you could tell which one was the smooth pebbles or the sand or the water.

    Just shutting off all the lights when you compose or perform music can produce an enormous change in the music. Jonah Lehrer wrote an excellent article in the 28 July 2008 issue of The New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunter” in which he talks about what neuroscientists have discovered about the process of insight that occurs when you suddenly solve a problems. It turns out a particular region of the right brain gets activated, and relaxation and lack of focused concentration prove crucial to that flash of insight. Presumably the same thing happens in music, which might explain why distracting yourself in various ways and getting rid of the tension and intense left-brain concetration helps in that novel musical problem-solving you describe.

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