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