Improvisation: Undergraduate, year 1 (2002-3)

This section comprise of my improvisation project for the year 1 of my undergraduate studies.

  1. CD #1 is the hour-recording project. You sit down in front of the piano, turn on the recording equipment, after brief sound test, improvise for (approximately) one hour.
  2. CD #2 is in-class and tutorial recordings, with duets, trios and quartets.
  3. CD #3 is in-class and tutorial recordings, mostly solos. The class also modified (prepared) a piano and some tracks are recorded using that as the instrument.
  4. CD #4 is lost as of this moment; Hopefully it will reveal itself someday.

Sectional Summaries

1. Least Successful?

In general my improvisations possess two major fields of error that I made in the practice and thus contribute towards the failures I have made. The first one is “underperformance”— cases that a higher level of aptitude is required in order to successfully accomplish the desired effect. This can be founded in long hours of playing, as I would be losing attentiveness and agility for reacting surprises, examples can be found in most group recordings I made, as the overall quality, both aesthetic and technical are drastically declining as we continue playing for a longer period of time. Also in my hour-long improvisation, as I was recording late in the school year, along with outside pressure throughout the music there are signs of exhaustion, both in the field of creation or maintenance. Beside cases where I did not input the best of my ability, there are certainly times where I have overestimate how much I could handle. Examples showing my own miscalculations can be found in many places within my style, such as polyphonic counterpoint: How am I supposed to play it well if I have no knowledge of advance harmony? I could excused my harmonic error as “unorthodox” or “contemporary”, yet deep within my mind I know that if I wanted to progress into the next stage I should better pick up the text book and start reading/practicing.

The second group of errors can be all simplified into the word “superfluity”. These are situations where initiative successes that had turn into failures. From simply the over-development of a good moment within a piece, to the excessive use of similar material or style, the act of overdoing not only annuls the advantages made before, but by making exhaustive effort it causes the situation even more difficult to rescue. The compound error made (from advantage to neutral to disadvantage) is far too costly for anyone to try. Notwithstanding the fact that one single piece of material should be used to the fullest, but in most situation of improvisation where more than one motive is being employed, it naturally destroys the general coherence of the work.

The act of overdoing is also the bigger error of the two when it comes to group improvisations, where one must learn not to put in too much, as others also deserve equal room to breathe. It would be a mistake for us if we believe that leaders within the group should give the most. Rather, leaders probably would have less personal space to play with, for the responsibility of the leader, is not only “leading”, such as providing materials for the whole group to develop, but also act as the moderator, controlling the flow of the music.

Thus whenever I did too less, or too much, or the combination of both mistakes shall happen. As we can not be perfectly precise, in a way, the art of adjusting is one of the fundamental factors in the art of improvising .

2. Best Material!

How joyful it is when music are played right. I would say it is merely a play of expectations and surprises. I believe that all improvisations have a degree of good aspects, the difference lies in the quantity of virtuosity within their respective works. As I was selecting materials that won approval of my taste and judgement I discover that all “good” music I played are executions of my mind that by chance done right. Unlike improvisations that are graded as least successful where I could find distinctive regions that requires improvement, the bar of best material is always moving forward, and upwards. Strangely I have started to find music that usually would not happen within my improvisations are as right as the conventional successes.

Thus I cannot specifically state what is the best that I could play, and have done; Rather I would suggest that in this ever-elevating mark all music that I think I have played well fits comfortably with my compositional beliefs. First of all, intention is by far the biggest factor dictating the quality of composition. One should know what he or she is intended to do, what available tools does he or she have, and different ways to accomplish the task. I believe this also applies to improvisation. Do not get confused with playing “on the spot” or “randomly” as signs of showing improvising can be done without any planning. Consciously or subconsciously one must think and coordinate their bodies to improvise. And in all of my cases good music comes from a steady flow of good intention—ideas that are physically possible. The steadier the better.

Yet the intellect does not dominates the world by itself. All great composers (musicians and everyone in general) are not only good thinkers but people with tremendous amount of emotion that they have skilfully and potently expressed towards the audience. As for myself I cannot find one single case that I improvise well without the passion, whatever that may be in respective circumstances. Emotion are the only fuel for my psyche to create momentum to move mentally or physically in any direction that my intention wanted.

Then there is the mystery force.

This is the quintessence that “spice up” whatever that sounds okay to great. Acting as the bridge connecting mediocrity to greatness, the happening is something uncontrollable. Being unscientific (cannot be reproduced), illogical (no path to trace and thus explain), and most of all unbelievable (well…), all that we could do is wait. Consequently the best that we could do is to prepare ourselves so we are readied for every potential moment, so that we are not wasting any miracles.

I would suggest that the above three factors’ coexistence are signs of showing good music is here.

3. Most Promising…

I always find irony within promises. As I have stated before, good moments only happen if they do. Consequently the “most promising” are cases that I have done most, if not all that I could do, and the chemistry just did not react in accordance to my plans. So is that supposed to be most promising? or instead utmost frustrating that lead to complete despair? I believe it all depends on which side where you stand as you look and judge. In fact, most of our improvisations would fit most appropriately within this realm of greyness, not being absolute to either side. Being “promising” takes an equal effort as others that are destined to be least successful or best material. The difference is the quantity of “the good and bad” that dictates the ranking of the work.

As you might have realized, my dictum of praxis is unidirectional: as for myself there is only one way to make things work. Yet there are simply far too much things to cover, beyond my physical or potential reach. Shifting back and forth between different requirements, besides hope for improvement there is the anxiety of my shortfall. For example, I can’t think about creating a pivotal chord while both of my hands are flying in a brisk tempo, at the same time bifurcating in octaves; There are moments when I know exactly how the music should go, yet the interval I played are just short of a semitone. And as a classic, what should I do when all tools are used yet “nothing” works? should I desperately find solution, or just stop thinking and let the sub-consciousness move?

I think no matter what I have done, stop playing and restart or rethink is the absolute last choice. It is like the deepest destruction one can make in music. Let alone interruption, I have always remind myself that its all over once I stop. None of us can go back and retrace history. Giving up any improvisation is like giving up my life: for I believe in every situation there is something hopeful, and such quality provides the impulse that I need for continuing the unfinished work.

There are quite a few of “restarts” in my recording project; some are technical, such as sound checks or disturbance beyond my control. Yet there are some cases that I have made the decision to stop playing. I believe I made the right choice, for there is a time for everything; to die is the last resort, not an impracticality. Sometimes only death can bring light into the hopeless abyss that you were trapped in.

What we all need is hope. No matter how much or less, we must be hopeful. I do not dare even think about existing in hopelessness.

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