Cheating again. I originally wrote this article on my Powerbook at an internet cafe some years ago. I used to like internet cafes. I don’t know why. Perhaps it had to do with memories of the excitement of discovering the wonderful world of the internet in internet cafes before home based broadband and later mobile Internet came into my life. Whatever the reason, i used to find internet cafes inspiring and stimulating.
Now you’re probably wondering: “what does this have to do with improvised music and more specifically, the role of the bass in improvised music?”. Well, it has a lot to do with where and how your music comes into being. The source of all music should ultimately be Inspiration. Finding your source of Inspiration should be as important as (perhaps even more important than) your choice of instrument. The truth to this point lies in the fact that if you don’t have anything to say you’ll sound sad on whatever instrument you play. Likewise, true artistry trancends it’s medium.
So, what is this thing called Inspiration and where do you find/get your own?
We won’t go into how the word is defined by those who have taken on the task of documenting our languages. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that Inspiration is: what “moves” you. When you are “moved” you are (hopefully) feeling. In a perfect moment, what comes out of your instrument should be somehow representative of what you’re feeling. That’s why we call it “music” and not math. In the heat of improvising, what you’re feeling should be somehow related to what you’re hearing. And on and on it could go until it stops by itself, maybe. Something like a recursive method.
What moves you?
Let’s talk bass. Have a look at the example above. A simple figure. If you remember from the last installment of this column, improvising is not a type of music but rather a way of making music. For this reason we focus on not what is played but when, how and why it’s played. According to Alber Ayler, our responsibility as improvisers is to convey spiritual information to an audience (remember: “music”). A big responsibility. How you convey this information is subservient to the content that is being transmitted. Like the blues, in improvised music it’s the steak and not the sizzle that matters.
What moves you?
First, play the example through very slowly. Set your metronome to mm60 and count the beats as “off beats”. That means that the beats that you hear are the one and the three in common time (4/4). Play the pattern slowly in all twelve keys. All over the fingerboard. I’ll let you work out your own fingerings. Once you’ve done this through a couple of times (played the pattern slowly in all twelve keys) stop. Stand up, stretch, take a couple of deep breaths. If you know how, do some yoga. Just get relaxed and centered. Now, look at the example again. You should be petty familiar with it in all keys. Turn off the metronome. Think of something that makes you happy. Now feel happy. Now, without regard to time signature or tempo, play the pattern and let it sound the way you feel. Perhaps you notice that certain notes in the pattern sound happier closer together. Or maybe even farther apart. Group the notes in a way that sounds “happiest” to you without changing the sequence of notes (we’ll look at that later). Experiment with dynamics. Try playing some notes louder or softer than others. Those of you playing with the bow or a volume pedal, try changing volume over the duration of a note. Experiment with different forms of producing the note. Using the wood of the bow, snapping the string against the fingerboard, ghosting, etc.. Continue until you find a way of playing the pattern that sounds expressive to you.
Let’s take it a step further. Forget the notes. What about the contour of the pattern? Grab a pencil and paper and draw a graph of what the pattern sounds like to you. It’s peaks and valleys in color and texture as you hear it. Now using the different sounds (not only notes but the sounds both pitched and non-pitched) that your instrument can produce, play that contour and let it sound happy. Focus on an event in your life. Focus on an emotion related to that event. Feel that emotion. Be it again. Think of what you would say to someone you love about that emotion. Now, play the example and make each note, sound and gesture descriptive of what you have to say.
Listen to examples of master improvisers expressing emotion. Check out recordings by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald and others. Don’t just listen to the (many great) bass players on these recordings. Listen to the music being made. Because in the end it’s not about the instrument or the method but the music.