Sunday, October 16, 2016

Group improvisation

This article first appeared on my old blog at the end of November, 2015. Now that I'm finally getting around to rebooting my site, this first article will set the tone for future posts. Whereas my old blog was mostly gear-centric, this new one will deal with issues, tactics, strategies, techniques and observations regarding the process of creating music.
This is a subject about which I've been wanting to write for a while, wondering whether I could present a coherent and understandable explanation of my observations. In the spirit of improvisation, let's see what happens...

I've been playing guitar for a long time; far longer than the most recent fifteen years during which I've made a conscious effort to improve my skills. For the largest part of that time I believe that I've misunderstood the nature of improvisation, particularly as it applies in a group context.

The solo vs. group distinction is important. I suspect that virtually every guitarist is familiar, and perhaps even comfortable, with the notion of solo improvisation. Guitarists of my age learned pentatonic scales and 12-bar progressions as a framework within which to improvise. Some of us even studied the jazz canon, thereby expanding not only our understanding of harmony, melody and rhythm but also our palette of musical colors. No matter your level of expertise, though, you're still improvising within a framework.

Frameworks are good. The structure of a tune gives both performers and audience the ability to ancipate and appreciate the changes. The soloist follows the changes. A good soloist follows the changes with confidence and nuance, perhaps painting a picture or a story arc in music. A less experienced soloist, playing within a suitably constrained framework, may nonethless convey a musically-appropriate solo by hewing close to the rules and "coloring within the lines". This notion of soloing over a framework guided my understanding of improvisation for many years.

To transition to the topic of group improvisation, it's probably important that you understand how I came to appreciate the artform. The process started with exposure to The Grateful Dead back in the `70s, and was significantly informed and reinforced about ten years ago with an introduction to psychedelic surf-rockers The Mermen. Not that these two bands are my only -- or even my primary -- touchstones. It's these two bands, though, that did the most to shape my understanding of group improvisation; partly because I found their musical language to be accessible to my own developing understanding and partly because of the huge online archives of live performances by both bands.

One cannot understand improvisation by listening to a recording of a solo. You can learn the solo, of course, but that makes it a composed piece. You can, if you like, improvise around the original solo, introducing your own variations while still paying homage to the original. But you're still improvising within the framework of the original solo. As an improviser, you should ask yourself: "How did the performer arrive at that particular choice of note, phrasing and tone for each note in the solo?" Remember that music theory only provides a suggestion as to how to structure certain aspects of music. Music theory, like any living language, evolves to (attempt to) explain what living, innovative musicians actually create.

Why is it important to mention theory within the context of improvisation? Theory explains that which is already well-understood. In a sense, music theory is an archaelogical record of the history of music. Those of us who listen to music (as opposed to relegating our music to the role of background noise) do take some comfort in recognizing familiar musical tropes. That's good. You need a certain degree of recognition in order to engage with the music.

But improvisation implies the ability to create musical novelty. You can stay entirely within a framework and still create a novel performance. I'd even suggest that it takes a high degree of skill and understanding to do so: not only must you remain aware of the framework, but you must choose a path through that framework such that your solo stands up on its own as a memorable example of territory not yet explored by other soloists playing within the same framework. The more tightly constrained the framework, the more difficult it is to discover unexplored territory.

There are, then, variations upon improvising within a framework. What happens when that framework evolves as you play? What does that even mean?

In listening to live recordings of The Grateful Dead and The Mermen, I found myself wondering how they "wrote" some of their extended jams and what made some attempts "work" better than others. Live recordings are, in my opinion, a much better way to explore improvisation than tightly-produced studio recordings. A polished studio recording may be a spotless gem of musical production and audio engineering, but it -- by nature -- hides all of the messy details that went into creating the tune. By way of contrast, a live recording exposes the "humanity" of creating music. And by extension, an improvised live recording may offer insights into the very nature of group improvisation.

For a long time, I clung to the notion that improvisation was a matter of knowing "what to play, and when". I envisioned that, somehow, each musician knew exactly what to play to create an improvised group performance. Perhaps I even imagined that "lesser" performances of the same piece suffered as a result of poor execution; not poor improvisation. This world view even made a bit of sense when taken in context. For example, why wouldn't The Grateful Dead strive to make every peformance of "Dark Star" shine with the transcendent splendor of the 1969 "e;Live/Dead" recording? It made sense that some performances would off by a bit in an attempt to visit unexplored territory. That doesn't explain why some versions of "Dark Star" never even smolder, let alone ignite. Surely a weak peformance could be rescued by trotting out a few of the choice morsels performed for the "Live/Dead" record... I explained away the "fact" that they'd bring into the world a poor rendering of one of their signature tunes by surmising that they were simply too stoned to care.

While that simple explanation satisfied me for decades, I've since developed a deeper understanding of group improvisation. That understanding comes from an eight-year collaboration with bassist Stephen Caird and drummer Joe Williams in the trio named "LCW". The trio was formed with the expressed intent of learning how to improvise as a group.

After eight years, learning how to improvise as a group remains an ongoing process. But we've learned some interesting things along the way...
  • You need a strong foundation.
  • You need to create a safe environment.
  • You need patience.
  • You need to record everything.
Here's how my own understanding of group improv has evolved.

You need a strong foundation. As an individual, you work on your chops, your timing, your tone and your knowledge. As a group, you need to put in the time to work on lots of material that's improvised within a framework. This helps to develop a shared language: a brief hint of a "set piece", when introduced into the group improv, can be used to signal or foreshadow a transition.

You need to create a safe environment. When you improvise, whether as a soloist or a group, you're going to have good days and bad days. It has to be OK with everyone to simply observe the failed attempts. It takes time to learn how to balance innovation with the likelihood of failure, and even more time to learn how to turn an unintentionally muffed phrase into a new, wholly unexpected line that either morphs into a new motif or deftly loops back around to rejoin the current groove.

You need patience. Lots of patience. A while back, Stephen mentioned in offhand conversation that he'd noticed that the LCW session recordings had gradually evolved to the point where they served more as good musical entertainment than they did as a record of things to improve. It had taken us about four hundred hours of focussed sessions over four years to reach that point. Instant gratification, this is not...

You need to record everything. Every LCW session is recorded from beginning to end. After cutting up the recording to remove chatter and uninteresting musical tangents, we end up with about an hour of recorded material from every session. Some of that is innovative; some is clinics to improve our grasp of set pieces or to try out a new motif. The important thing is to have the recording. Obviously, this is how a live-improv band creates tracks for release. But the recordings are also essential for hearing performances in a larger context. When you're peforming, your appreciation of the piece as a whole must take a back seat to "keeping up with the conversation&. I've lost track of how many times we've noticed that a performance that seemed lacklustre in the moment translated beautifully when heard as a whole. Without that crucial insight, we'd be inclined to have avoided many of the things we've learned to do in order to create our group improvisations.

Moving from generalities to specifics:
  • Train your ears. Harmonically, melodically, rhymically and dynamically. Broaden your musical horizons. You can't play what you can't (or don't want to) hear.
  • Train your hands. Learn to translate what you hear. When a novel line or progression catches your interest, take some time to first deconstruct it and then make it your own.
  • Pay attention. Even if you don't follow a change in the musical conversation, you still need to be aware of where the conversation is heading. Otherwise, you're gonna end up sounding like an old guy yelling at the clouds while everyone is riffing about their favorite movie scenes. Put another way: context is important.
  • Listen. If paying attention is about keeping an awareness of the context, then listening is about choosing an appropriate tone for the conversation. Brash, reserved, loud, soft, close, distant, ... are all reasonable voices to use. The right choice depends upon what else is happening and whether you want to support or change the conversation.
  • Give up the training wheels. Whatever your frameworks, recognize when they've outlived their usefulness. Some frameworks suggest their own opportunities for further exploration; develop these further. Other frameworks can be dead-ends; lose them or relegate them to brief quotations or excerpts.
  • A trio is the ideal size for group improv. More players requires more coordination and reduces opportunities to improvise. Fewer players eliminates the opportunity to lay out.
  • Be fearless. Remember the words of Winston Churchill. If you're afraid to make make mistakes, you'll never stumble upon all the little gems that'll eventually become part of your own sound. Worse yet, your band mates will never have the opportunity to pick up on some unexpected quirk and mutate it into a new sound for the band.