Some Notes On The Usefulness Of Improvisation

by Thomas Brett

The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument.” — Brian Eno

My friend Lee is always asking me to write music for him to sing over–“we just need an A and a B section!” he likes to say in endless encouragement–but as much as I try I usually come up short.  A few nights ago I turned on the computer and loaded up an acoustic piano sound and tried (again) to do something for my friend.

But I really just wanted to improvise.  As a player of somewhat limited means, the kind of playing I’ve always gravitated to is modal–that is, music that stays in the same scale or group of notes for the duration of the improvisation.  I also tend towards keeping my hands moving–often in an interlocking fashion where the left hand crosses over the right–to make a continuous rhythm. Most of all, though, I like experimenting with different “shapes” of my hands over the keyboard to make chords or note combinations that sound (and look) new to me.  My hands keep trying new configurations in search of new sounds that make me feel anew.  It’s not as much a matter of expressing my feelings through the keyboard as much as unearthing a sensual “language” for expressiveness.  So, a chord doesn’t so much embody a feeling as much as seems to refract it through its juxtapositions of notes and intervals played with varying dynamics and rhythm.

***

As I play, I begin by trying out some kind of pop-sounding chord progression. But it sounds contrived; it’s too simple, too boring to my ear. And as much as I try, I can’t ever seem to get my chord progressions simple enough.  There’s always something a little off–like I’ve missed some fundamental concept of music theory. And besides, I’m feigning interest in a musical idiom in which I’m only a tourist (listening to songs while driving, for instance).

It’s at this point that I momentarily “give up.”  It’s a key moment because what I’m giving up is the pretense of actually trying to accomplish anything specific (like actually writing a song–ha!).  Also, I’m giving up a sense of being in control over the outcome of my improvisation–of knowing and directing where it will go and how it will go.  So “giving up” is a turning point where I lose all ambition (sorry Lee: there will be no “song” tonight) and just get into the experience the music is offering me.

I like the piano because it has such a large range of registers, a rounded tone, and a sustain pedal that allows me to st r  e   t    c     h my playing and let sounds ring.  And the amazing thing is that once I begin I forget that I’m using a little 61-key plastic midi controller hooked up to the computer via USB and triggering digital piano samples.  The sounds fool me enough that I can lose myself in them, my body tricked into thinking this is a real piano and interacting with it accordingly, pressing those plastic keys as if they’re ivory.

I try playing with an electronic metronome click track (in case later I might want to add other parts to the piano) but it feels constraining.  When I play the piano without other sounds, I want sp a  c    e  to play with dynamics and tempo, so I mute the click and just choose a fluctuating, personal tempo that feels appropriate for this late hour.  Ahh, much better.

***

After a false start, I hit record and improvise for five minutes.  Listening to it now, it seems to have captured something of the moment.  It captures less a feeling or a mood (though it does seem to have that) and more just musical thinking in motion.  I like improvising because it moves at the speed of my thought (and the mechanical limitations of my piano technique!)–no slower, and certainly no faster.  My improvisation (which hasn’t been edited in any way) has some space to it too, in the form of little pauses where I let notes ring out while I consider what just happened and where I might go next.

For me, improvising on the piano like this is a fun and useful exercise in listening and concentrating.