Ok, so i’m cheating a little. This is a re-print of an article i published a few years ago. I thought that it could use some re-exposure. I’ll be addressing many of the points brought up in this article in depth in later blogs. Please have a read and leave comments.
There once was a little boy,
Then he went outside.
Chapter One: Enlightened Listening
If you’ve heard Jaamaladeen Tacuma on Ornette’s “Of Human Feelings” and feel that you’ve finally met your Muse, read on. Or maybe Buell Neidlinger’s fluid lines on Cecil Taylor’s “Air” have disrupted the serene geometry of your life and the idea of unbridled improvisational fury has taken on a tentatively appealing tone but you just don’t know what to do about it? You read on too. However, if you’ve just heard Henry Grimes with Albert Ayler on “Live In Europe 1964-1966” and you’re still wondering “…can those guys really play or not?” then this column is not for you.
Unlike most “instructional” columns, this one assumes that the physical (technique) is already under hand. Sure there will be a fair amount of the requisite musical examples and exercises, but the main purpose here is to help each of you develop the conceptual skills that will make free improvisation more fun and challenging.
Whether alone or in a group the most important technique that the improviser has at their disposal is Enlightened Listening. What’s the difference between a band like Machine Gun and five persons playing five different instruments in five different countries at the same time? The members of Machine Gun are listening and responding to each other making sometimes monumental compositional decisions very quickly. This ability to contribute to what one hears with an inspired response that serves as a catalyst to drive the collective creative process forward is what we call Enlightened Listening. This type of listening differs from the listening one does in a ‘conventional’ ensemble in that instead of just listening to ‘blend’ or ‘lock’ with the other players, your listening is extended to more intricate parameters of analysis. These parameters will be discussed shortly.
To use the technique called Enlightened Listening , is to analyze the current state of the ongoing composition (the improvisation) and use that information to decide what shape the composition will take next. Now, bear in mind that to improvise is defined as composing without previous preparation and/or to make or devise from what is at hand. By this definition, we can view Enlightened Listening as being the essence of improvisation. So even though the uninformed might say that “…improvisers just play anything…” or that “…improvisers just play whatever they want…” we can clearly see that in the presence of Enlightened Listening, improvisation is an object oriented, highly structured real-time process of recursive composition.
So what do you actually listen to or for? Earlier we mentioned ‘more intricate parameters of analysis’. More than just ‘when’ to play and how identifiable what you play is to be, the improviser is looking for information to use as ‘rules’ for the composition they are about to give the world. These rules govern all (or at least as many as are in the moment relevant) aspects of composition. According to the late great improvising guitarist Sonny Sharrock, there are five main starting points for improvisation:
I’ve added a sixth:
These points also correspond to the significant aspects of a composition. To break down each and every one of these points and their in-depth treatment is beyond the scope of this article. For now, we will satisfy ourselves with the new concept of selectively listening to each of these characteristics with the intention of using it (or some aspect of it) as the springboard for the next gesture we will perform on our instrument.
What do we use to decide how to respond to what we have heard? I have identified five ‘rules for improvisation’:
1.Play the same as someone else
2.Play the opposite
4.Don’t play notes
An example of this ‘system’ applied goes like this:
First, an item from the list of Sharrock’s starting points. Next choose one of the five rules of improvisation as your ‘response’ to the item from the first list. Imagine this simple algorithm applied to a nine piece ensemble with everyone freely choosing from the two lists. Now we begin to see the power of spontaneous composition through Enlightened Listening.
The proper execution of the results of this analysis is as important as the analysis itself. For instance, choosing to listen for chords and then just running Be-bop lines as fast as you can is not free improvisation. It is free regurgitation. Remember, you are listening to hear something that someone else may not have heard. Your response is meant to recast that event in some novel way. Your means of achieving that is though mining your skills and either applying something old in a new context and way. Or applying something new to the present situation. Technique is not music, listen to Thelonious Monk. Music is the result of someone creating a song. Instead of playing phrases, start with trying to find the next note to follow the one you just played. The next note that conveys the emotion and meaning that the preceding note implied. It might even happen that someone in the group is already playing it for you. Knowing the difference is what Enlightened Listening is all about.
Next time we’ll look at some examples of lines used by improvising bassists and what inspired them. Till then, transcribe something interesting like the pitch contours of a conversation with your mother or someone snoring.