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Intro talk to an Improvisers Orchestra performance

January 3, 2013

I would like to share with you a brief talk before a performance of my Improvisers Orchestra in April 2012 at the Jazz Gallery in New York. I addressed a class from New York University, led by Howard Mandel, that attended the rehearsal and performance

In would like to invite you to respond to any of the points made here.

Have a happy and very musical 2013.

Here we go:

There is a beautiful expression in music: when we learn to play a piece of written music and finally put the music sheet away: we are now playing “by heart”. This is what we are doing here, in the widest sense of this expression. This is an orchestra of professional improvisers in New York and we are playing together by heart, from the heart.

Our goal is to harmonize, without knowing exactly what everyone is going to play next. This is a very high art and everyone here is a very seasoned professional. This is by no means a workshop band. This is a group of people who decided to come together, each with many years of experience in improvising music in their own areas, which are quite different from each other.

The idea is to create a sound together without knowing, really, what happens next. The theory behind it is quite simply that every note that one plays really contains every other note, in the way of partials or overtones. This is something one cannot really fathom intellectually, but one can distinctly feel.

There are, literally, thousands and thousands of ways of expressing a tone, which means that there is no note that is ever played again in exactly the same way. All music is new, all the time, even when you play an old song. Its an old song, but you never quite played it that way before. 

More and more you can get a feel for that, fine-tune your sensitivity for each sound. This is what we are doing here in an orchestral context: fine-tune to the collective sound of the partials and overtones going on in the sounds that we participate in. How is that done ?

It is really done by developing a very detailed, incremental feel for dynamics, to start with. We usually think of various stages from pianissimo to fortissimo as our dynamic range, with maybe 20 to 30 differentiations. That would be very detailed already. But the fact is that, for example 16 bit recording, the sound quality of CDs, already recognizes 800,000 shades of dynamics.

That means, that the shades of dynamics that a human ear and heart may recognize are almost infinite. So there is no end to fine-tuning our sensitivity for dynamics as well. We are not using our head but our heart in this. We feel it, when the dynamics for blending with the collective sound is just right. We actually loose ourselves in it. We become a part of the total sound.

When playing music we can’t really “think” the notes we play. If you think about what you play, it is either too late or too early. Its never “on”.  So if you want to perfect your playing you need to play “by heart”. Again, I mean that in the broadest sense of the word: playing by heart, playing directly from the heart.

We are born with an innate sense of direct, spontaneous play, that is not directed by the head. We feel it. It is the most natural space to be. 

So, playing “by heart” together is what we are going to do tonight,

 We also study a few lines (melodies) together to play from; they might be written by myself, or by someone like Don Cherry or Ornette Coleman. Or by some people from different traditions, for example from Turkey or West Africa. These melodies you would usually find in a different context.  Those melodies we also learn by heart directly, by listening to them over and over.

An important practice is to focus on silence; when not to play. To make the rests or breaks an equal part of the music. To “play the rests”, so to speak.

Often the parts we don’t play really make the musical communication work.

We often overplay: too many notes.

When we don’t play, the listeners have a chance to play, in their minds.

Subconsciously the listeners respond. They dance in their heads, as Ormette put it.. So skillfully playing the rests may be the most important component of creative  musical communication.

All we talked about here does not only apply to players, but also to listeners.

Listeners may develop a player’s mind, without having to learn anything about music in technical terms. We’ll have to address that some other time.







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One Comment
  1. There is a recent review of KBIO to be found here:

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