Improvising To Find Something Interesting


One of the quandaries I find myself in when I sit down to play keyboard is how to come up with something interesting—and by interesting I mean something that I haven’t quite heard before.  

I begin by just playing. My hands go towards the minor keys, but I’m not thinking about keys if I can help it. I’m just trying to get into a space through the music. My facility with music though, isn’t quite up to the task and I fall into predictable patterns—cliches of the hand, as it were. After a while I stop to try to reset myself. What are you trying to do again? I’m trying to get into a space. Right. Maybe I’m playing too fast, or I’ve become preoccupied with a cascade of notes instead of a simple gesture. Whatever the problem, still nothing good is happening. (Is the soup done yet? Maybe I should check on the soup.)  

It occurs to me that I have no reason to think anything musically interesting will ever happen, or if it does, that I’ll ever be in a position to recognize it. The feedback loop between the sounds I’m making and my level of noticing needs to be ramped up. That’s one way to consider what music is: noticing the musical potential of sounds. I keep trying different things to see how they sound and how they feel. As I play, I imagine different scenarios—like prompts for playing: 

imagine being in a particular space 

imagine that you have to make do with just this octave 

imagine that you know more than you do  

imagine that it’s what you would like to hear  

imagine that you’re compressing your experience into the chords 

imagine that you’re giving the skyscape a soundtrack 

imagine that it’s for a film 

imagine that it’s grist for a remix 

imagine that it’s a journey in search of a single perfect phrase  

imagine repetition is your friend. 

Today it’s repetition that gets things going. I can’t seem to think linearly right now, only up and down between a few chord inversions, with my hands tangled as one, playing with shared dissonances. I like it. It’s the first interesting thing I’ve heard all day (the last twenty minutes), so I keep repeating it, and as I repeat I think that maybe this is enough for a whole piece—or a whole something, or the beginning of a something else. Suddenly the pressure is off and I can play with repeating these chord inversions. It’s a game now, a game of figuring how much I can do with just this. 

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