Born to Make Things Up...
or why I'll stop improvising only when they pry it from my cold dead sticks
My career is based on an inability to be repetitive. This may seem paradoxical for a person trained as a percussionist but it's true. Virtually every performance I've ever given, be it a theater work, a dance composition or a concert, has some element of improvisation at its core. It doesn't matter if the music is performed live or recorded, there will always be at least some element of improvisation in there somewhere. In this article, I'll discuss some of the reasons why that's so.
First I should offer my definition of improvisation. Improvisation is the act of making music that is not pre-planned or pre-composed. There are varying degrees of improvisation ranging from, at one end, free improv, where your goal is to play ONLY things on your instrument that no one has ever played before to blues based jamming, where you have a sort of playbook of options and select one from column A, one from column B, etc., and fit them together within a pre-existing structure. There's a place for every kind of improv on the continuum from free to structured. Each takes a lot of skill and practice that aren't part of the non-improvising musician's life.
So here are two videos of recent performances that illustrate my definition of improvisation from free to structured.
The first, Waaayyy Too Much Cowbell, was made for this article. I set up a table, put some sticks on it (OK I put them in a cute little vase I remembered because I had just washed it). Then I took a suitcase full of cowbells and let improv be improv.
The second is a more structured sort of improv. It's a live recording of a performance of one of my solo pieces for Marimba Lumina (an electronic radio controlled marimba) titled The Indeterminate Pitch Tango from earlier this year. These pieces have a set group of sounds and manipulations programed into the Lumina along with a couple of musical ideas about how to use the sounds (some musical phrases, a general set of notes to start within, etc). A live performance of one of the pieces consists of my beginning to play with the preset idea and then developing it as the mood and the audience’s reaction inspires me. In this performance, I decided spontaneously to add an improvised theremin solo, along with some foot pedals playing some vibraphone accompaniment.
At one level, every good performer learns to improvise. We've all seen it. Equipment breaks. Cues are dropped. Mistakes are made. Improvisation is the duct tape and spit that patches this all together and makes a seamless show for the audience. So I say I may as well capitalize on that and make improvisation a vital part of the show. Improv is like looking at things in your peripheral vision. You only see a blurry bit of the facts at the time. But the more improv one does, the better one gets at focusing on the edges.
Also, the pursuit of perfection is overrated. I've done non-improvised shows that are virtually perfect. So been there, done that. And the next night ... ohhh maybe I can do it again! At a certain level the pursuit of the perfect performance becomes a law of diminishing returns. A much more interesting approach to me has been to allow more improvisation into my sets.
The more improvisation I incorporate into my live performances the better I seem to appeal to audiences. There is something magical that happens between an audience and a live performer. There is a real interconnection where each one’s reaction spurs the other on to greater heights. The musician plays, the audience reacts, the musician incorporates the audience's reaction and plays more, the audience reacts to the new playing and so on.... It resembles a really good conversation where each person is constantly reacting to the thoughts of the other.
The more comfortable the performer is with improvisation, the more integration there can be with the audience. After all, it's the player’s skill at improvisation that's the essence of adapting the performance to the needs of the audience. Improv is a conversation. Composed music is a speech. Conversation often occurs beneath the words. It's an exchange of emotions and feelings. This is what engenders trust between audience and performer.
The trust force that binds me, as a performer, and my audience also allows me to perform at a higher level than would be possible without an audience. At one level I'm working without a net, taking chances without really knowing if they'll work or not. Every improvisor will fail at some point. As a matter of fact, most fail regularly. Personally, I always consider around a 50% success rate for the improvisation to be a really good performance. The other 50% isn't a total loss necessarily. It just doesn't result in a new discovery. There's no magic. That's the downside of improvising, a high failure rate, especially if I'm REALLY taking chances. But it's that successful 50%, that really makes the evening come alive. The successful improvisation is much better than the player could ever be with written music.
But, the trust of the audience provides another sort of net. When the performer can sense that the audience is going along, enjoying the risks that the performer is taking, the improvisor is ready to take greater risks. That comfort level allows the performer and audience to laugh off the failures and appreciate the successes. For me this creates an incredible rush and release that's positively addicting. I can't imagine ever giving up the improv.
But now, enough of this, I gotta go down to my studio and make stuff up!
Klimchak is an Atlanta-based composer, performer, and multi-instrumentalist.