Some thoughts on the final extended improvisation concert:
It was a different mental game performing the last extended improvisation live. The distractions were different. Mental distractions that come up at home are usually a variety of chores, plans, really any kind of life stuff. With an audience present, those distractions were gone, which was very nice. But they were replaced with others. Namely, "am I connecting with the audience?", "do they get it?", "are they bored?" etc. It can be difficult to gauge those things playing solo. With a band one can get instant feedback from other bandmates with whom you are communicating. But even more difficult regarding this, was the fact that I couldn't stop. Perhaps the listeners didn't have a chance to digest what I was playing. And I was unable to introduce tunes or tell stories, which most jazz audiences get plenty of during a set. Also, without breaks between tunes, I was unable to get audience feedback, namely applause. So I was up there alone, with these thoughts flashing through my head. I wonder if other long form improvisers, such as Keith Jarrett or Cecil Taylor experience similar distractions during extended improvisations. Jarrett has made public some of the distractions that he deals with, but those have all been external as far as I know. Mine were mainly internal. I suppose just like anything I would get better at dealing with myself in that situation with more practice. Just do it. That's what I want to do, but that's easier said than done. I recently saw Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing his Liszt project in which he juxtaposes pieces by Liszt with more modern pieces which Liszt may have inspired. To make his concept more effective, Aimard asked for the audience to hold applause until the end of the concert. Could he have been having similar thoughts as me? My guess is that with his extensive experience in that situation, he probably better trusts himself and his audience. But maybe all this is unimportant. This project was meant as a self-study, rather than a performance based thing, anyway. We could debate the importance of audience connection, interaction, and feedback. Maybe a more mature musician would care less about the audience, or conversely care more. At this time in my life, I'm drawn to the latter. Nonetheless, performing the last extended improvisation live was a great privilege and I thank all who were there and all who allowed it to happen.
Some thoughts about the extended improvisation project as a whole:
The personal growth I experienced during the weekly extended improvisation project is more difficult to pinpoint than that of the daily improvisation project. With the dailies, I experienced very tangible development in extended piano technique (playing the inside of the instrument), and opening of the ears. The extended improvisations taught much more internal lessons - lessons in the mind. It was challenging to deal with the clock. Timing was a problem inherent in the project to begin with. Ideally the music would have been free to be as short or long as it wants, but the timing element couldn't have been avoided. There were many times when I wanted to stop, but needed to keep going to fulfill the time requirement. This was particularly difficult when a logical ending arose with only a few minutes left in the hour. I kept going in those situations, but the musicality may have suffered. However, there were musical lessons learned in that very problem- how to keep going and stay on the idea longer than natural, or learning to allow a sudden change to happen.
More of a challenge was mental focus. My mind often wandered during these long improvisations, and all I could do was call it back. I think that the fact that I was improvising allowed the mind to wander more than if I had been reading notes, or performing a classical work for memory. The reason being that a mental lapse could easily destroy the latter, whereas an improvisation can survive that - a drifting of the mind might change and improvisation, or even bring it to a screeching halt, but anything can happen in an improvisation - it's all okay. I want to say that those moments may have hurt the music, but honestly, some of those unfocused moments sounded really great when listening back. Perhaps this is some sort of true music coming through subconsciously. Or perhaps the fact that my mind was occupied by something else got it out of the way of the music. I can take a lot away from that - there may be too much thought and not enough instinct in my improvising. However, I think that my ideal state of mind would be to be fully absorbed in the moment. Not distracted, not analyzing, but experiencing - the very state of mind that was my goal from the beginning. I will keep striving for this in all of my musical activities. My mind will wonder, and I will call it back.
Again, we must ask what is next. Both improvisation projects were a great personal success. I want to keep some kind of accountability project going. After contemplating various ideas, I’ve decided to embark on a weekly composition project. My favorite thing about studying at the Manhattan School of Music was the writing emphasis. There was always at least one composition deadline each week, and I haven’t had a period that was that productive writing-wise since. I lightly worry about not having a regular improvisation practice. Perhaps I will try to keep a daily improvisation without recording in the mix. Without further adieu, I introduce to you the weekly composition project.
May 6, 2012
I consider myself a "big picture" composer. I like my pieces to have one or two, maybe three clear ideas that encompass the whole thing. Clarity. Perhaps that's why I compose a lot of shorter pieces. There is only one track over five minutes on my first trio record, and the forthcoming record features 13 short pieces played as a set. It is usually difficult for me to trust a longer work. Does the audience stay engaged? Almost all of my daily improvisations consisted of one or two ideas that were explored as long as they held interest to me. After that, the piece ended, and that felt nice and right. Herein lies the challenge with the hour long time requirement. It seems that it is almost impossible to do what would be natural to me, that is to explore one or two ideas for an hour or longer. I have trouble trusting that listeners, including myself, can stay interested in those ideas for that long. So I end up exploring more ideas. Sometimes it is as if I'm doing three or four or more improvisations back to back. Other times different ideas seem to flow fairly seamlessly into one another. One effect that this project is having on me, is it is making me stay with ideas longer. I think this is a good thing. There is one extended improvisation that more or less explores one idea: June 13, 2011. Perhaps it is the strongest one. December 2, 2011
Some reflections on the weekly improvisations: The state of mind that I set out to find (see below) has been rarely found during these improvisations. This no doubt has to do with the fact that I don't have the support of other improvisers. However, there is often an opening that occurs during these improvs, it's just a different feeling. I think I would fail to describe that feeling, so all I'll say is that it's enjoyable, but requires more effort to maintain.
The time requirement has been interesting to deal with. I have never completely excaped the clock. But many times when it feels right to stop, I just end up shifting to a new idea or new territory, and it seems to work fine. The extended improvisations seem similar to Zazen meditation, in which there is also a time requirement. The way I deal with that requirement is a very important part of both the improvs and the meditation. That is a definitely a look in the mirror.
I've noticed that I end up in a tonal area more often in these longer improvisations than I did in the shorter daily ones. Sometimes parts of these even seem a little smooth and sappy. But I think the reason for the tonality tendency is because it's a means of keeping the intensity up without having to overplay. The pull against a tonal center can be interesting and intense. Or maybe it's just how I am feeling these days. Either way, I aim to let anything that wants to come out, come out.
November 4, 2011
Starting the week of May 8, 2011, I will record one improvisation lasting an hour or more each week. I've enjoyed the state of mind brought on by some extended improvisations I've done with friends, so that is the inspiration for this project.
Some initial concerns:
I am a bit hesitant to create a rule that I have to play for an hour or more. I've never improvised for an hour straight solo or with other musicians. I am guessing that it will feel right to stop playing quite often before I've reached an hour. I've never improvised with a time requirement. I worry that I will be looking at the clock during recording, which is where I don't want my mind to be. But I feel like the time requirement will take me into new areas of exploration, so that's what I will attempt. Also, I'm not sure how to handle interruptions that may arise. What happens if the doorbell rings when I'm at minute 50? Do I ignore it? Do I stop and start again? Do I try again tomorrow? Scheduling may also be a problem. The daily improvisations were for the most part easy to schedule, because there was no time rule. Some days it was only a minute or two long because that was all the time available that day. But here I will need to find an hour or more of time when I will not be interrupted by anything. Nonetheless, I am excited to begin. May 4, 2011