Etude 12: Graphic Notation and Improvisation
The last etude of the book For the Contemporary Flutist has as subject Graphic Notation and Improvisation. In this article however I would like to specially bring forward some ideas concerning improvisation.
For the Contemporary Flutist deals with many different extended techniques including wind tones (Etude 1); harmonics (Etude 2); bamboo tones (Etude 4); multiphonics (Etude 5); whisper tones (Etude 6); singing and playing (Etude 7 and Etude 8) and circular breathing (Etude 10). With each of these techniques we have concluded that they can be really useful for guiding us in developing our flute sound, especially concerning control and flexibility. Extended techniques are a most successful and enjoyable tool for developing the ‘body-part’ of our instrument (everything you do with the body to blow the flute; the interior). At the other hand, the traditional techniques seem to more focus on the ‘flute-part’ of the our instrument (the finger action; the exterior). But here we will introduce one more ‘part’ of our instrument: the ‘mind-part’.
An Important Headline
One may say that improvisation, in whatsoever form it is practiced, is a musical approach which may extend your creativity, your sensitivity, your musical awareness and maybe even your awareness in the daily life. Or more in general, improvisation is a most enjoyable and successful technique to develop the ‘mind-part’ of your instrument. While extended techniques develop ‘the body’, improvisation will develop ‘the mind’.
We all are great improvisers!
Sometimes I heard musicians saying that improvisation is quite difficult or that they do not now how to improvise, or even that they are afraid of doing so. But I think this is a big misunderstanding. Look to yourself, every day, every moment, the way we walk, move, think, look, listen, speak, cook, eat, feel, interact… we are constantly improvising. Our life is like one huge improvisation from the beginning until the very end! In the daily life both the nature as well as society (governments, institutions, companies, schools, relatives and so on) confront us with many rules and obligations to be followed. We constantly interact with these rules and obligations and improvise our lives around these. So maybe you don’t feel an improviser on the flute, but in fact we are all great and daily-trained improvisers. Let’s bring this creativity to the flute!
The Structured Improvisation: Here the musician(s) perform(s) an improvisation following a sort of prefixed route, without prefixing exactly how. For example: you can prefix only the dynamic. Your structure could be: ‘start pp - make a long crescendo - end ff”. With a structured improvisation you are sure about certain musical parameters (like the dynamic in the mentioned sample), but you will create the other parameters during playing (like, which notes to play; how many notes; what kind of melodies; what kind of rhythm; how long the piece will be; etc.).
Improvising on a Scale or Chord Progressions: Another way is to create an improvisation based on a prefixed scale (a modal improvisation), or on a certain sequence of chords (chord progressions). In many jazz music the essential structure for the improviser is the chord progressions (the so-called chorus).
Improvising on a Melody or Rhythm: One can also start from a prefixed melody, or an existing melody, and create variations from there on. The same you can do concerning a rhythm, to start from a prefixed rhythm and to create variations from there on.
Musical Parameters in Time
- High & Low (melody)
- Loud & Soft (dynamic)
- Few & Many (density, rhythm)
- Short & Long (articulation)
Controlling the Musical Parameters
An interesting improviser can deal with these parameters in a natural and spontaneous way. Here it may seem that each parameter is controlled independently, like by a separate part of the brain, resulting into a wider palette of expressions and an extended, sophisticated way of creativity.
A Score for Improvisation
- a graphic score
- some set of prefixed rules
- a movement, like by a dancer, where the dancer is like a living score.
- a painting or an image
Three Improvisation Studies
Improvisation 1: The image here represents a skyline of a Tokyo neighborhood. Now look to this line and use it as your score. When you play you can follow the line, changing your pitch, or dynamic, or… But you may also interpret the skyline as a city impression, making you play some city sounds or dense city feelings. Whatever you do, don’t force yourself, simply accompany the time. It is a great way!
Improvisation 2: On a nice day, go to a park or any other place where you can hear some birds. Take your instrument and try to ‘speak’ with the bird. Do not force to play a music, but just be there and communicate with the bird. Listen to the birds and try to answer its phrases. Maybe the bird will answer your phrases as well?
Improvisation 3: Find a spot inside behind a window from where you have a view on a street-view, with people walking and passing by. Now, you follow with your eye one walking person, until that person walks out of your view. At that moment you focus an another person until that person walks out of your view, etc. The basic rule now is that you have to play what you think fits best to the person you are following with your eyes. Obviously, when you change to another person, you also change your musical material, since that other person probably demands another expression.
Etude 12: Graphic Notation and Improvisation
Etude 12 combines some clear instructions with sometimes a sort of abstract graphical material. Here we will take a look to some small excerpts:
Excerpt 1: The first excerpt we look at is in the very beginning of the piece. The fingering is indicated by a finger diagram: a D-sharp in the 3rd octave with a trill for the R5 finger (right-hand little-finger). The long pp-sound is extended into a square. The square indicates an area for improvising with the material inside the square. Here you can freely manipulate the resulting sound as well as the dynamic (p-mp) during minimum 5 and maximum 20 seconds.
Excerpt 2: The second sample is just a few staves down in the piece: here the standard notes are replaced by some angular lines. These lines should be interpreted, for example as indicating the relative pitch. The thickness of the line can also be interpreted freely, for example as relative loudness.
Excerpt 3: The next excerpt is a section of another improvisation square. In this case the square is filled with all kinds of images. We see a big fish, an airplane, trees, stars as well as some words like ‘relax!!!’ and ‘enjoy’. This chaotic collage of images can be interpreted in any way, using the images and words as a starting point. But another possibility could be to express just a general chaos, or… Dynamic is allowed from pp till ff.
Excerpt 4: The last excerpt is from the final part of the Etude 12. We see a running puppet image, stimulating you to make quick and maybe irregular trills as indicated (with the left-hand C-sharp key and both trill keys). This should produce a rapid alternation of the notes as indicated in the small square.
A Final Word
Like with many things, we have to develop our skills and possibilities by practicing, again and again. I promise you that studying and developing your improvisation will not only give you lots of enjoyment, but also develop the ‘mind-part’ of your instrument. Similar, if you study the extended techniques with consequence, you will again not only have a lot of enjoyment, but also develop your sound. Or more in general, you will develop the ‘body-part’ of your instrument. The ‘mind-part’ and the ‘body-part’ together will give many happy results. But indeed good things take time. That is also their beauty! Just we must study with consequence, daily, however expect the result to arrive one day in future (one year, two years?). But when the result will be there, it will be something totally part of you, something which is not a trick or a quick solution, but a flexibility and a creativity for creating and sharing some wonderful sounds and music.
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