One initial aim of this project was that it should result in a repertoire for improvisation, as a foundation for music making. Not as a set of fixed clichés that can readily be produced when needed, but rather as a vocabulary or coordinates in a musical universe. Repertoire in this context refers to a whole range of internalized knowhow about how to use these speech sources to make music. The process of developing and internalizing such knowledge is probably similar for composers and improvisers, pursuing and testing ideas, keeping the results that sounds interesting and discarding the rest. For the improviser there is the added aspect of performance, both practically mastering the instrument, but also musically knowing one’s ways around the material at hand. Usually one can rely on an accumulated reserve of experience as a performer and improviser, but I found that for this project I was literally starting from scratch. Not only was I developing new approaches to making improvised music, I was also building a new instrument and learning to play it at the same time. In retrospect it is not so strange then, that it took much more time than I had anticipated reaching the point where I could improvise and perform on a sufficient level. To get there I went through several rounds of exploring, learning, developing, rehearsing, performing, and revising. On a small scale these rounds typically took the form of a repeating creative loop:
||: Idea -> testing -> evaluation -> revision :||
On a larger scale over the course of the whole project, the process of musical development can be summarised with these stages:
During early instrument development I made a series of simple studies to explore basic possibilities, usually focusing on one element at a time. Studies have been suggested as a useful method for developing and discussing isolated elements in artistic research (Schwab & Borgdorff, 2014). This early into the project it was not so much about discussing, but more about just identifying basic material. The results are not terribly interesting to listen to as music, but making these studies was an important step in the process of defining and exploring material for later use.
Improvisation as discovery
The next step was to play more freely with different elements in open-ended improvisations, which I recorded and later analysed. These improvisations were often of long durations with little attention paid to form or development, but served as a productive method for discovering interesting musical ideas, as well as identifying shortcomings of the instrument system.
The accumulated results from these improvised explorations gradually took the form of a repertoire of musical possibilities, like amassing building blocks or mapping out elements of a formal language. To better understand what this repertoire consisted of and what the relationships between the parts were, I worked on different ways of how to organise these ideas conceptually. I have described this in more detail in this blog post on developing a repertoire, but in short this involved sorting ideas in terms of opposites as described earlier (speech/music, fluid/discrete, acoustic/mediated, vocal/instrumental), according to different notions of time (narrative, cyclic, still, interactive), type of source material and speech genre, and in terms of instrumentation/orchestration.
Starting to get a grip on what my materials were, I was still not able to maintain the control or overview needed to improvise freely with this repertoire. As a step towards greater improvisational control I started to compose with graphic notation. This way I could work on formal issues on how to combine these elements and notions into coherent pieces, while still leaving the details to be improvised. A detailed description of the composition shown below can be found in the second half of the same blog post on developing a repertoire.
With compositions it also became much easier to concentrate on the logistics of performing, and rehearse the practical aspects of controlling the new instrument. This is of great importance, as it is easy to underestimate the amount of motor memory training and neural rewiring necessary to properly internalise control over any instrument. The two first performances were of this kind with an overall composed form.
Harpefoss Poetry Festival in 2016:
Improvisation and interaction
It was not until after these developments that I started to reach a level of control and internalisation where I could keep up with the ideas and opportunities of the moment and improvise more freely. Then I could start to experiment in performances by bringing in other musicians into the mix, exploring how this concept would work in interaction with other performers. Both completely improvised performances such as a duo with vocal and electronics performer Tone Åse, as well as ensemble experiments like this semi-composed piece for strings and percussion:
Schwab, M., & Borgdorff, H. (Eds.). (2014). The exposition of artistic research: publishing art in academia. Leiden: Leiden University Press.
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