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The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker


Shoemaker: There is a long tradition of using systems or set procedures to catalyze or facilitate free improvisation, and move musicians outside of their reflexes or comfort zones into more uncharted waters -- John Stevens’ Click and Sustain pieces; John Zorn’s game pieces; et al. Whether with students or in other settings, what sorts of constructs have worked for you, and what hasn’t?

Rothenberg: I've participated in Zorn's game pieces, Butch Morris's Conductions, and other group improvisation schema with Anthony Braxton and Adam Rudolph.  I think Zorn's systems work brilliantly and these other folks are highly successful as well. 
However, I tend to use these kind of strategies only occasionally within the framework of larger compositions.  On my Power Lines project for instance, one of the pieces, "Crosshatch" used a time line controlled by the rhythm section while the other musicians went through a series of boxes with musical lines and different sorts of improvisational instructions.  It was a way to achieve a very open sort of piece while also maintaining central thematic materials.  In this way I was able to create a composition quite distinct from the others on the project.  So it was more about a sonic goal than a challenge to the musicians, although I hope that happened as well.  When I am working with highly skilled players, these strategies may be useful to achieve different sorts of outcomes.  But I feel it is in the nature of fine improvisers that they challenge themselves in all situations and I choose musicians accordingly.
Teaching is another situation and in this context I've used various ideas.  The most basic and instructional are expanded ideas of imitation and contrast.  Also important are lead versus accompaniment roles.  I think one of my specialties is teaching solo improvisation and in this context I often challenge students to reverse their obvious tendencies.  I remember at a master class in Japan where a skilled tenor player played 2 pieces - a ferocious free improvisation and a soft and gentle version of "Misty" - nice, but quite typical.  I then asked him to play a ferocious version of "Misty" and a gentle melodic free improvisation.  The results were quite interesting and the player later wrote me that this had helped him tremendously.
As with any musical expression, improvisational strategies don't work when the people proposing them have not thought out what the actual dynamic is that they are trying to create.  Often, generalized impressionistic ideas are put forward which mean entirely different things to different people.  The result is what you would expect: confusion. 

Thomas: Methods used to prevent improvisation going stale requires different methods on piano and with electronics. To prevent myself becoming a bore with electronics, I will try to make a new bank of sounds. This enables me to sound fresh and also, depending on how I have programmed a sound, will create certain challenges to my keyboard technique. For example: using sounds with very little attack means I will have to press the key harder. I have found this very useful in maintaining my piano technique, as electric keyboards are easier to play.

Methods I use to prevent my piano playing becoming just a set of clichés include playing certain Bebop tunes backwards. One of my favorite tunes is “Bouncing with Bud.” I have found it useful to play this composition back to front. I will also only play the third note of every bar, then playing those notes as a tone row, then applying different harmonies on the piece. Another example is using a left hand accompaniment in the style of Art Tatum while playing the head in another. I also practice certain pages from the excellent Yusef Lateef book, Repository of Melodic Scales and Patterns. This has helped me in looking at the piano in a very different manner.

I also look very closely at some of Oscar Petersons piano transcriptions. He is a master of harmonic colorings, and I use them in a different context, like playing some of his voicings very slowly, or playing the individual notes of his voicings spread all over the keyboard. I will use the root note at the top of the keyboard and say the F# which was the last note of his voicing at the bottom end of the piano.

Using familiar material in unorthodox ways is another approach. Think of a G7 plus 9th chord shape. Just using the shape to create different voicings can be very useful. Other methods I use have come from playing with certain composer/improvisers like Eugene Chadbourne. When he wrote his pieces for his Hellington Country project, he wrote parts that required me to play one bar of tape music, which had on it extracts from Ellington compositions. This made me develop my tape manipulating skills. Parts of the score for Tony Oxley’s Celebration Orchestra required me to play independent events on the electronics and piano at the same time, which I have found very useful in open-ended contexts. Derek Bailey’s Company principle of constantly changing personnel also will prevent your playing becoming clichéd. Methods that don’t work for me include having a pre-determined attitude, like playing loud no matter what, or playing just quietly. I find this approach restrictive and I end up playing clichés. Also, to just play one note or only play the inside of the piano just don’t work for me if it’s preplanned.

Anker: I have mostly been involved with structured improvisation (systems, different forms of graphical notation, texts other concepts etc) in groups larger than five. Among the approaches that have worked best are some of the conducted sign-pieces by Barry Guy, Mats Gustafson, a couple of new music/experimental Danish composers and some pieces of my own.
In those pieces, the form stays open and is new in every performance which I like. As those pieces often need a conductor, one of the crucial points is how the conductor communicates with the orchestra- especially w/ improvising musicians who are often used to have a lot of freedom and make their own decisions. They work well in pushing the musicians out of habits as well as creating interesting musical structures, expressions and forms. They also work with students. Also, some graphic scores using defined forms work well. When it works, it is mostly because the ideas and concepts are clear, interesting and meaningful, but still give space for improvisational freedom and creative possibilities.

Stricter concept-based compositions with not as much freedom can also be interesting as an ear-opener, but, for me, they tend to be a little boring to perform after a couple of performances. On the other hand, some of these work well as exercises in a teaching situation, where the students work with a set of rules for exploring dynamics, pauses, note/sound areas, rhythms, pulse, etc.

Shoemaker: What is the best tip about improvising that another musician has given you?

Rothenberg: My first 'real' International gig was with Anthony Braxton's Creative Music Orchestra on tour in Europe in 1978.  (The Koln radio gig of this band has been released on hatArt). Braxton gave me an unaccompanied solo in the middle of one of the written pieces which was quite a featured spot for such a young, untested player.  I think it was the 2nd gig where I let my nerves get to me and fumbled my ideas.  On the bus the next day Anthony came over, put his arm around me and said "Never be tentative!  You have something to say, Mr. Rothenberg, make your statement!".  It was just what I needed to hear and the best advice a young improviser can get. I think the next gig was the Moers festival - outside in front of 5,000 people in the rain - the closest I've ever been to a Woodstock moment. Anthony was like Moses leading us in the downpour.
Most of the band was under a canvas stage tent but Anthony was conducting from the front of the stage and getting totally soaked. Just before my solo lightning flashed, the band stopped and then followed a huge thunderclap - I shit you not.  After the thunder Braxton yelled "KILL!" right at me.  I can't remember what I played but I know it wasn't tentative.

Thomas: The best tip was given to me by Paul Rogers. He said keep practicing and working on it. I have not found a better piece of advice for an improvising musician.

Anker: Hard question. I think it must be about never forcing things to happen, but to be patient for example when you feel nothing is happening and have confidence in that something – an idea, direction etc. – will appear. And that if you really don’t find anything to contribute in a given situation, then don’t play. Anyway, these things are parts of longer conversations and are more than a tip.

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