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!
Anthony Di Bartolo is a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer, and educator.