“Don’t seek to emulate the master;
After our session, I thought a lot about the quote at the top of the score. I even thought about what Jason might have been seeking while composing this music. Then I realized that those words directly relate to what I believe the goal of artistry is: to find your own voice. To do so we must emulate our idols, but at some point we must also find out what drove those people to create in the first place and then learn that about ourselves.
I idolized (and still do) my percussion teacher, Gordon Stout. I spent years studying his music and when I got to grad school, I got to see first hand what drives him. Then I realized what inspires me are my own passions, love, friendships and experiences (musical and non-musical). Find what makes you create or at least want to try to create and go for it!
Here’s the breakdown of what should happen in “September”:
1.) Drone (D natural)
2.) Noise with the ability to manipulate rhythm
3.) Short non-pitched rhythmic sounds
4.) Harmonic/melodic content (written for a chordal instrument)
For videos A and B we picked a few cards out of the can and used those words as guidelines while we moved through the form of the piece.
For video C, I asked Jason to walk me through how So interpreted their studio version of “September.” This time we stayed in the structure more and then added a coda at the end that was free. We used the same instrument palette as the previous takes, but tried to make some new sounds.
For those who also play kit, I would be remiss to not point out how great Jason’s touch is over the instruments. He was some how able to express music on the drums with a classical sensibility while grooving as hard as a rock or funk musician.
I hope you enjoyed our versions of “September”. If you haven’t checked out So’s versions, you can hear two different examples below.
Over the summer I had an amazing session with Sandbox Percussion at their studio in Brooklyn. I've been a fan of their work since they started posting videos of early performances at Yale and was pumped when I reached out to Ian [Rosenbaum] and he said that they were totally into hanging with me for a few hours to talk about improvisation.
At the time, I had just finished writing five new improvisation etudes that employ multiple instruments, so I thought it would be a great way to test them out as "chamber etudes" when I met with Sandbox. I originally thought of these pieces as a soloist with many instruments, but as we played we all realized that these etudes will be a great tool for musicians to develop communication skills and expressivity within the context of chamber music. It was especially fun for me because I had never played with any of the members of Sandbox and we were learning to play together on the fly through these exercises.
Sandbox is the real deal. They improvise with just as much sensitivity and precision they bring to their performances - and if you caught them during the opening concert at PASIC last month, you know what I mean! Everyone in the group also had lots of thoughtful insight on how they perceive and use improvisation in the group and as individuals. So that you all could read it here, I asked Victor [Caccese] to compile it after the session and will appear in quotes throughout. Thanks Vic!
chamber improvisation etude #5: two different takes
Since this particular etude uses five instruments, we each chose one. We also kept the same parts in both takes, but rotated instruments. The notation is mostly "slash" style so none of what we played is written, however I did include some guidelines in writing to help the music along.
The goal as an individual is to create as many different sounds as you can through playing areas, extended techniques, and stick choices. The group goal is to take cues from the melodic parts and appropriately accompany them. There is also a tempo change, so one player is in charge of leading it.
“Our relationship with improvisation as a quartet has been a growing one in recent years. We each have different backgrounds with regards to improvisation and that has helped to inform how it is used in our daily life in Sandbox Percussion. Most of the music we play in Sandbox has been composed and notated long before the start of our first rehearsal. There are however ways we use improvisation in our rehearsals to achieve a deeper understanding of the music and the composer’s intentions. If we are working on a difficult rhythmic passage for instance, we often repeat or “vamp” that section many times in hopes to simultaneously internalize our own individual parts while also learning the music that our colleagues are playing. We then take that a step further and make up our own rhythmic cells or phrases in attempt to achieve a deeper understanding of the tempo, rhythmic subdivisions, and general musical idea. It’s a strange phenomenon, but our ability to play a new piece gets worse before it can get better. We have to break the music down and internalize all of it’s individual parts before we can understand it as a whole. Improvisation is a great way to do that. "
Performance of "Karakurenai" by Andy Akiho
I definitely don't need to introduce Akiho's music, but if you have not heard this piece before you will fall in love with it. "Karakurenai" is a flexible instrumentation work and I feel that it is a beautiful way to feature how you can improvise structure as well as pitch and rhythm. I was blown away by how Sandbox carefully guided the way this music unfolds.
"We also use improvisation as a tool for composition. Our own members, Jonny Allen and Victor Caccese have composed a number of pieces for Sandbox. Often times they bring in sketches and ideas into a rehearsal that work as guides for improvisation. These guides begin to unravel and take shape through group improvisation which eventually become the finished piece."
Jonny's Density Etude
Jonny brought an idea to our session that explored rhythm density. The instrumentation is one metal pipe and two pieces of wood per player. The concept is basically this - everyone plays the same steady value on a metal pipe (quarter notes first) and then each player has an assigned value to introduce (eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes, quintuplets, sextuplets). As you progress, the steady note becomes a faster value. Due to the the mixing of rhythms, the texture thickens and creates a really interesting "Xenakis-like" polyrhythmic piece.
The last video we recorded that day was a free improvisation. Using the experiences gained by playing together earlier, we were able to take cues and listen for musical motives from one another to develop the end result (I think ha).
"Improvisation is an effective and fun way to express yourself without any technical barriers or limitations. It is the quickest way to exercise your instincts and musical intuition. That is not to say it isn’t important to dedicate time and effort into learning and mastering music that has been composed and notated. Ultimately, one should take the listening skills they learn from improvising and apply them to every piece of music they are learning. Exercising the skill of improvisation enables us to open our ears and minds and become more well-rounded musicians.”
Check out Sandbox at National Sawdust
Looking for a summer festival? Please consider the NYU Sandbox Percussion Seminar. You can spend a few days in NYC learning from Sandbox and get to perform alongside them too! Click here for more info.
Thanks again to Ian Rosenbaum, Victor Caccese, Jonny Allen and Terry Sweeney for sharing your time and talents with me!
A few years back, I happened to find Maria's @improvaday project and was thrilled to see what she was doing - I've followed it ever since! If you don't follow her on Instagram - @mariafinkperc - you are seriously missing out. She creates miniature compositions out of ordinary objects. Although Maria uses conventional percussion instruments too, the coolest ones are those that serve as a simple reminder that music is always around us. We just may not be taking advantage of those musical opportunities like her! Here are a few of my favorites...
Maria was also recently asked to do a live version of @improvaday. A component of the improvised performance is a reel of clips from @improvaday that are quantized. Check it out!
When I went up to meet Maria at her Boston studio, I think we were both unsure about how this session would take shape because we both do a lot of improvising. That means so many choices. Improvisation can be individually active, interactive, or reactive. When playing with other people that are comfortable creating spontaneous music, it can encompass all of that which ultimately means that the possibilities are endless. This is the best part about collaborating because it's interesting to hear everyone's improv vocabulary, instrument choices and to learn to play with others in a short amount of time. It's also nice to talk about upcoming projects and how improvisation plays a role in their creative, performing and teaching endeavors.
Maria's thoughts on how she uses improvisation in her daily routine
"Improvisation finds it's way into my daily from many angles. The @improvaday project is always on my mind - even outside of the practice room. When I'm in a new environment, or working with collaborators, I often try to find something in the room that will make sound. These micro improvisations help me get to know the room/instruments, and create relationships with others. They are fun, light, and establish a playfulness in the space. To me, the idea of not taking oneself too seriously is important! When composing, or preparing for a performance, I also use improvisation as a creative stimulus and tool. I think that the foundation of improvisation in my work has helped me develop my voice as an artist, finding my own musical vocabulary, and allowed me to more clearly articulate my contributions when collaborating on new projects."
In Boston, my setup consisted of a Zildjian Spiral Trash Cymbal, two bourbon bottles (unfortunately empty), a medium tom-tom, a few metal bowls and a stock pot, which was salvaged from a local food processing plant. Maria's included a sampling pad, four resonant metal pipes, two large stock pots and a low A marimba.
The first two performances are free improvisations and the third is a work-up of my latest improvisation etude. Thanks again Maria for hanging with me. You rock!
My newest pitched improvisation etude
If you like this etude try one of the others! One pitched and one non-pitched etude is available in the sheet music shop for free. Once they're all done, I will be compiling them in a book that will be available for purchase from the shop as well. I currently have 5 of each complete.
More about Maria:
How I first connected with Cathedral Kitchen
Two years ago, the school where I teach partnered with the Cathedral Kitchen, a "soup kitchen" and much more in Camden, NJ, to teach our students about giving back through a series of service projects. Over the past two years, because of the Cathedral Kitchen and its staff, I have seen the efforts of true kindness and it has absolutely changed the way I look at the world as a whole.
A few quick facts about them...
-In 2015, the Cathedral Kitchen served about 100,000 meals
-Guests are not charged, and and no one is ever turned away
-The Kitchen also delivers meals to local after-school programs and groceries to low-income senior centers, and more
-They are currently the largest emergency food provider in Camden, NJ
-Cathedral Kitchen operates a culinary arts training program where about 60 students per year learn skills in the industry and leave as employable workers
-They provide free dental care and general health screenings on site
How I am trying to help
In an effort to help out in my own way, I wanted to compose a piece of music that not only directly benefits the Cathedral Kitchen, but also generates awareness for this awesome organization. Spare Change actually came to life a few months back while I was cleaning out my car and found a bag of change. From working with the Kitchen, I knew that a small bag like that could feed several people, and I was unintentionally taking it for granted. So I dropped what I was doing and began improvising using the coins as a sound source as well as an added color while striking the drum in the normal manner. Before I knew it, I had several ideas sketched out and began piecing it together, using improvisation as the connective tissue.
Once Spare Change is released, I will donate 50% of all sales to the Cathedral Kitchen. So anybody who plays it will be making a difference. To give you an idea of costs, each meal served up at the Cathedral Kitchen costs about four dollars, so every piece sold will feed approximately two people. FOREVER!
Thanks for taking the time to read and please share on social media to help me spread the word about this organization!
Finally! The purpose of this post is to give you all some clear ideas on how to use improvisation as a practice tool. What better piece to showcase some of these ideas than the famous xylophone part from Porgy and Bess! Since I am letting you into my practice session here, I have decided to talk and play throughout the videos, so this will be the only written part. Enjoy and happy practicing!!
P.S. I can't wait to hear what you all think of 12c!!
Images from videos:
So far I've had some awesome responses regarding Improvisation Etude 1 and today, I'm excited to release Etude 2! This is the first in the non-pitched series and it focuses on a single instrument. I chose to play it on snare drum this time and actually recorded four different takes to show how many different ways it may be interpreted depending on sticks/mallets, instrument and simply how you are feeling at the time of the performance. I will be gradually releasing each version of the piece below, so check for updates through my social media pages...
The other aspect that Etude 2 focuses on is time. Have you ever noticed that time goes by much slower while you practice or perform? When playing, we can really draw out each second to make as much (or as little) of it as possible. It's actually a pretty amazing feeling to truly be in the moment! When our brain is totally engaged in an activity like music making, time can almost stand still.
So...you will need a stopwatch because each section explores the length of 30 seconds. That amount of time feels like the blink of an eye in our everyday lives, but you'll feel differently once you try this!!
Want a copy? Click below. It's free!
Improvisation Etude 2 - any non pitched instrument
For non-pitched percussion instruments. This etude focuses on using rhythmic gestures alone to shape a composition. It will be included in my upcoming book on how to freely improvise.
A few weekends ago, I visited my teacher and mentor, Gordon Stout. We had plenty of time to hang out, eat amazing Chinese food, drink great coffee and talk shop. He even agreed to do a few improvisations with me, too, which brings us here!
The thing that has always impressed me about Gordon (besides his incredible playing) is that he always puts the music first. He is the number one advocate for the composer and always seems to make decisions that let the music shine. I got to experience this first hand while preparing the premiere and then again through the recording of my "Duo for Snare Drum and Marimba" which appears on Gordon's latest cd "Welcome to Stoutland". He was always willing to make adjustments and of course added his own touch to my music that made it infinitely better. Check out the last movement of the studio version of the piece below, featuring Gordon and myself. You can find the sheet music too by clicking here!
Although I have performed with Gordon before, this most recent experience was different. The cool thing about these #improvise sessions is that you can really hear his voice on the marimba. Some of the licks you hear may even remind you of his compositional style or works themselves. This really goes to show how many composers develop pieces and find their own voice through improvising at their instrument(s). Think about it... by doing so, you take away all of the barriers of written music and you are left with your own thoughts and can begin to develop and express them in multiple ways. It's the most organic way to create music.
Before working with Gordon in grad school, I actually wrote most of my music at the computer. Then I saw the way he would improvise, turning his thoughts into compositions. I started expanding my own writing process then, improvising some sections and developing others on paper or even just leaving a section open in the music where I could create during the performance itself (like in the duo, bounce! and Float) There is no wrong answer as long as the end result is a piece that makes you happy. You have to find your own path and writing style.
This is what Gordon has to say about his process:
"I get many of the ideas for my compositions through improvising on the marimba. Often when warming up, and playing "standard" types of exercises, I begin to vary them and try them in different ways, so that my brain also stays active and involved. When I hear something I like, I write it down immediately. Then improvise some more on the idea, then write down more, etc. etc. Depending on the idea, I will either stay with paper and pencil, or go to the computer (Sibelius) to end the idea. Sometimes, I work between the marimba, the computer, and paper and pencil. Sometimes, once on the computer, it stays on the computer. Sometimes it stays on paper with pencil. Each piece reveals to me what is the best method for continuation."
I think that it is really important for young composers to hear that even Gordon, being the most prolific composer of percussion music today, finds many ways to develop his ideas-all starting with improvisation. By the way, Gordon is presently composing more than ever, so be on the lookout for many new releases!
I used to play drumset for this vaudeville-style burlesque variety show in Manhattan on Saturday nights. The show is pretty crazy - jugglers, comedians, a sword swallowing belly dancer and plenty of half naked women. At some point, I needed a sub and at the time didn’t really know anyone in NYC. Somehow I got Josh’s name and he was available. After he came to watch the show, his only words were “What the…!?”, but he told me he’d play. We talked for a while about percussion, good whiskey and other stuff that I can’t remember. Keep in mind that music you make with people you can get along with is much better than music made with people you can’t.
Since then, Josh has been doing some awesome things. He just finished the 2016 “NY Spectacular” show at Radio City holding the drum chair. He has also held the Timpani/Percussion chair for the production “Heart and Lights” and the famed “Christmas Spectacular”. Currently, Josh subs on Broadway’s Aladdin, Jersey Boys and performs in the Tri-State area.
For post 9, Josh and I decided to focus on the non-pitched palette. Our overall goal for this performance was to blur the lines between rhythm and gesture. Sustain from the chimes, cymbals, bass drum and thunder sheet is one way we could easily accomplish this even though it is not an easy task! We also experimented with alternating roles - if I heard Josh playing more rhythmic patterns, I tried to do less of it. We also took bursts of notes we played and developed them independently to produce a mass of sound that has rhythmic drive, but not necessarily in a tempo and certainly not in time with each other (even though we do groove as well). Since we were short on time, we only recorded one video, but there will be a second part to this collaboration sometime in the fall. Enjoy!
(Note: the piccolo snare drum and cajon are not visible in my setup)
*Headphones strongly encouraged due to the extreme dynamic contrasts*
We chose to assemble a multi-percussion setup using both pitched and non-pitched instruments or a "super marimba" as Phil called it. In my previous posts I focused on keeping pitched and non-pitched instruments separate, but you'll see here that combos work too. The melodic material is based on four notes: C-F-F#-B and we slowly progress into the key of C minor.
This one features lots of metric modulations and also body percussion (clapping, snapping, stomping, etc...) as well as the two doumbeks. Another version of the non-pitched palette!
One thing that was really interesting to me about this one is how we explored long notes using bass tone. If you focus on the two pitches it is like a melody.
The four notes D-Eb-Bb-G are developed during this session. Listen to how far we take it! Compositional tools such as augmentation, diminution, inversions and more were used. Phil had so many great melodies in this one!!
Free improvisation on snare drum. Can you name the pieces Phil quoted?? You better...
The theme in this session is the paradiddle. Notice how we took elements of the paradiddle sticking and turned them into phrases. We also expanded to double, triple and paradiddle-diddle. Check out "Rudimental Arithmetic" by Bob Becker for more permutations of these stickings. That book changed my life.
Thank you to Phil O'Banion for your time and amazing musicianship! Everyone should now go listen to his new album of pieces for percussion and electronics called "Digital Divide". It features music by Ivan Trevino, Andy Akiho, Lane Harder, Baljinder Sekhon and Patrick Long. That is all.
Improvisation Etude 1 - any pitched instrument(s)
Test out your improvisation chops! For pitched percussion instruments, this etude explores the use of pitches within an E lydian scale to construct a pleasing piece of music in ABA form. Left hand gestures are given throughout. This etude will be included in my upcoming book on how to freely improvise. Try it with a group too.
Anthony Di Bartolo is a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer, and educator.