Improvisation as Locality

December 13, 2017

By Debashis Sinha

Often when we enter into new artistic spaces (in a physical or cerebral sense) we feel unsure of ourselves. We grapple with our sense of authenticity, the legitimacy of our contribution, or the extent of our technique. We wonder whether we belong in that space. If we fixate on through-composed music, as composers or performers, it becomes a challenge to deploy our skills in a more spontaneous and open compositional space. The fear that sets in tends to overshadow those very tools that we hone as artists: a relationship to our instruments, technical and creative ability, vision, and mindfulness. These and other skills are at our disposal as improvisers.

My own relationship to improvisation developed as a child through my experiences learning tabla from an Aunty in the south Asian community, and accompanying devotional songs at temple on Sundays. I learned a few grooves, and then, since no one was listening closely, I “secretly” experimented with them as I played; turning them upside down and backwards, looping them internally to various degrees, leaving strokes out. This exploration took place privately as well—playing drums along to ska and 2-tone records in my basement, my 12-year-old self was continually changing rhythms and checking in on the result. 

But I never called it improvisation. In my understanding, improvisation was what happened in solos on big band jazz records—which for some reason the band geeks in junior high were obsessed with.

The rich tradition of North and South Indian music was constantly around me in my home—my mother used to dance in Uday Shankar’s company when she was in India, and my father was a huge fan of classical Indian music, only giving up playing sitar when the necessity of providing for his family as the oldest son became impossible to deny. Despite being surrounded by this music, I felt as though it was a musical world separate from that which I was listening to in my “Canadian” life. As a result the concepts and execution of musical performances in these two worlds were, in my mind, not related. I knew that North Indian music was based almost exclusively on improvisation and yet I didn’t understand that this improvisation stems from the same family that Benny Goodman was activating (with different rules and results of course, but at heart...).

When I came across the idea of improvisation in percussion music, I was quite at a loss. How do we do this? What does it sound like if we aren’t using chords, melody and harmony? The only thing I understood to be part of my toolkit was time, and time of course is a malleable thing, having been pulled apart and turned on its head for thousands of years in many musical traditions. I didn’t have that understanding or technique, or rather, I only had an inkling of the very beginnings of it—knowing enough to know that I knew absolutely nothing! So where did that leave me?

Composers in western music have been experimenting with implementing improvisation to varying degrees for years, from instructional and graphic compositions to explicit “improvise/ad lib” commands in percussion parts or placing cadenzas in works. The performer as well was often expected to improvise with individual embellishments and ornamentation—reproducing the notated piece without that individual touch was frowned upon.

Given the long-standing relationship between improvisation, composition, and performance, the emphasis on the written note that held sway for so long (at least around the first half of the 20th century) seems…odd. Why not place our inherent impulse of music making at the fore?

Rick Sacks, Toronto-based percussionist and former director of Arraymusic Ensemble, shared this thought with me about his relationship to improvisation:

My improvisational activities began long after my university training in contemporary music percussion techniques. I began becoming interested in improvisation when I taught at Bennington College and experienced workshops with Milford Graves and Bill Dixon. Ensemble and solo works that utilized graphic and text based notation also informed my improvising. More experimental and "free" sessions still echo my associations with these world music experiences and my history of learning and performing abstract contemporary composition.

Sacks’ comments as a percussionist resonate with me, and remind me of my forays into improvising communities—in particular, as a listener. When attending concerts in various Toronto venues, I found myself charged, inspired, vibrating in response to the artists I was seeing. The force of local musicians like Nick Fraser, Andrew Downing, Ben Grossman, Germaine Liu, Christine Duncan, Brodie West, Rob Clutton, Nilan Pereira, Nicole Rampersaud and others is etched in my memory. It felt like punk rock to me: the vitality, the freedom, the electricity and fearlessness.

Their performances pushed me to engage with the idea of improvisation as a vessel that I filled myself, instead of relying solely on a tradition defined by someone else. Of course, filling that vessel is demanding, and it took years for me to find a path that feels good, which is to say it feels like it’s mine. Sometimes I stray from it, walking on someone else’s path, and sometimes I get lost. It’s ok.

In virtually every major city in Canada one can find a vital community of musicians and experimentalists committed to being in the moment and/or championing the idea of improvisation in their musical practice. Composers are embracing improvisation as a statement of community, or a way of defining or distinguishing their pieces (or both). Improviser and composer Lina Allemano sees her compositions as possibilities of relationships—she sets up environments and “plants seeds” for the music to grow, watered by the particular musicians she composes for. Lina says, “imagination tells (me) what the piece is, but it is built on relationships.” Her compositions manifest differently in different communities, and are an expression of the culture of improvisation of that locality. Her pieces sound completely different in New York than they do in Toronto, a fact that surprises her, and makes her thoughtful about what composition actually is for her: “translating my compositions across contexts is not so interesting to me—they are different depending on who is playing. So I wonder: am I really composing, or just planting seeds?”

As audience members and practitioners of music, embracing and accepting improvisation and its techniques allow us to inform and expand our experiences of a piece. This is without a doubt a good thing. The more we can open our minds to many ways and means of music making, the stronger our music will be.