Four Tips for Classical Musicians Beginning Improv (I wrote this on the fly)

by Joshua Roman
1c53e6d17512a3a28f27cce961ea777ac5981d14_800x600

If you’re a classically trained musician, chances are you can play a number of complex pieces on demand, by memory, you can look at a piece of music you’ve never seen before and decipher the symbols on the page in real time (sight reading), or at least you can rather quickly learn a piece and bring it to performance level. Are you, however, comfortable playing along with music you like on the non-classical station? Can you sit in with your friends and make up a tune, a countermelody, or catch the bass line the first time around?

With the “classical” sensibility that has been cultivated over the last century, the latter set of skills may sound superfluous. Crack open that history book, though, and you’ll see that improv has been integral to musicianship for centuries. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (name pretty much any musician from before the 20th century) – they all knew how to improvise. Their level of improv was fairly high, in some cases arguably the main reason for their original fame. While that’s an intimidating standard, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of even a basic level of improv comfort are tremendous.

The most difficult part of improv for someone who is used to preparing for hours, days, weeks before letting anyone hear a piece of music, is letting go of that control. The fear of playing something wrong is important to overcome, but I’ve discovered a few helpful mantras/tools:


1. Don’t compare your improv to the music you usually play.
If you spend most of your time playing the music of the greats, you might have totally unrealistic expectations. Those sounds were organized by veritable masters, and have proven the test of time. That’s not necessary for improv purposes! Simple, easy, accessible, creative, and above all, YOU, is what’s important here.

2. Start small.
I mean this in every way possible. Start in a room where no one can hear you, if you need to! Sometimes it’s useful to just play one note over and over again (an ostinato) until you get tired of it and naturally move on. Or, put on a song you listen to all the time, figure out the melody or the bass line, and then gradually begin to find other notes in between. Sometimes I even like to hold one note through a chord pattern, and feel the tension modulate as the chords underneath shift.

3. Allow yourself repetition.
When I was ten or eleven, my dad started having me play with his band on Sunday nights at church. I’ll never forget his reply when I asked about the sheet music – he said “you’ll figure it out. If you don’t like the note you’re playing, play a different one.” Kind of to the contrary, he also said “if you play a ‘wrong’ note, play it until you make it the ‘right’ note.” Basically, if you do something that doesn’t quite fit, you can incorporate the “mistake” into your next phrase, thereby “fixing” the mistake retroactively by use of repetition. So much of music is about how we play with expectations – so a keen awareness of patterns can take us into super cool and new places, and help us let go of the fear of “messing up” in improv.

4. Do your thing.
The most beautiful thing about improv is that it comes from you. It can begin to reflect your own unique voice – your sense of style and the elements of music that are most important to you. Find yourself listening to Lady Gaga when you’re not practicing excerpts? Great place to start! Simple chord patterns, a consistent beat, tunes you can pick up easily. Love the structure of techno with its beat drops and long arcs? That’s a fun way to learn to read what’s coming next. Want to get inside the mind of Dvorak and his Cello Concerto? Take the main theme and riff on it – how would you develop the material differently? One of my favorite things to do in school was to turn out the lights in a practice room and just start “following the sound.” Sometimes melodic, sometimes strange and wonderful fragments, sometimes just a rhythm would emerge. Letting go of expectations is key.

billtjones_ted2015_02

Photo Credit: Bret Hartman

The benefits of learning to improv become apparent very quickly. First off, it opens up so many collaborative possibilities! It also gives you a very powerful entry point into any composer’s music. When you start to see all of the choices the composer did not make, the choices they did make paint a stronger picture. One of the more amusing results of becoming comfortable with improv is less fear of memory slips. I say “amusing” as I think of the times I’ve heard myself and others wander off script, and the hilarious (and therefore less awkward) paths back to the written score. Perhaps most importantly, as this skill develops, it gives you insight into your own artistic voice. When all the musical choices are yours, your priorities emerge much more clearly. This process of self-discovery is absolutely essential in order to cultivate an understanding of what you offer to your listeners and colleagues.

In my own musical life, improv has gone far beyond those beginning days of an added cello line to the band. I improvise all of my cadenzas when I perform Haydn Concertos, I’ve improvised entire pieces on stages including the TED stage, and collaborations with artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, DJ Spooky, Anne Patterson, We Are Golden (“Just Every Fisher’s Folly” and “Allen in February and March”), Mason Bates, have all come about because of comfort making notes up on the spot. And I’m not even very good at it, just willing!

Let’s hear what you’ve got. Share your stories, through improv video or otherwise.

Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Renée Baker

by Maggie Molloy

reneebakersseatedbatonChicago-based composer Renée Baker knows no creative boundaries—or rather, she just prefers to transcend them. Her music quite literally jumps off the page, often foregoing traditional Western sheet music in favor of graphic scores, improvisation, and even conduction.

As a violinist and composer, Baker has spent the past 25 years creating and conducting musical explorations into classical, jazz, and the furthest reaches of the avant-garde. Over the course of her career, she has founded nearly two dozen new music ensembles with a wide spectrum of musicians ranging from jazz cats to classically-trained orchestral players. Currently the Artistic Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble and Mantra Blue Free Orchestra, Baker has cultivated a singularly expressive and inspiring musical voice.

And that voice is coming to Seattle this Friday, Oct. 28 for a performance with 12 of Seattle’s most outstanding improvising musicians at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space.

The concert features the world premiere of Baker’s surrealist Cabinet of Wonder suite along with two other well-loved works: RAGE for Chamber Collisions and Altered Consciousness (a spatial conversation between minds).

The titles alone sparked a lot of excited curiosity for us here at Second Inversion. Lucky for us, Baker kindly obliged to answer our questions about her upcoming performance:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

Renee BakerRenée Baker: I can’t ascribe a particular style but can certainly point to ideas and influences which inform my constantly evolving creative world. The process always starts with the question of intent: what do I want this work to say, explain, express, evoke? This is applicable to my composition, film work, sculpture, painting, musings for book works.

The works, whether in traditional or nontraditional notation are distillations of my view of the world. So as a method of communication I think my works transcend the old role of composer and comes closer to being a conduit and channeler of ideas and inspirations as they occur to me, I’m always thinking about what I want a work to say and what the motivation is for starting ANY work of art. So my products are remnants of all music periods, all art periods, past and current architecture, the ever changing palette of fashion, the extremes of the world of cinema, trending food fads—see, all this cycles all the time and everything influences everything.

I’m superbly influenced by Harlan Hubbard, Basho, Anselm Kiefer, Akira Kurosawa, Merce Cunningham, DW Griffith, Anne Truitt, Tasha Tudor, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Marina Abramovic, Meredith Monk, Leon Schidlowsky. Anthony Braxton, Joseph Beuys, Oscar Micheaux, William Kentridge—this list can go on and on. I’m a voracious sponge of a mind and at some point everything experienced is channeled directly or indirectly into a creative outlet.

SI: Can you describe a little bit about the three pieces being performed on the October 28 program?

RB: Cabinet of Wonder is a work created to celebrate the worlds of Cornell and Beuys: containers that hold varying compartments of meaning, determined by the viewer/listener in this case. As there works spoke to me, the over-reaching idea that stood out for me is that we are  so similar with the same types of thoughts, fears, idiosyncrasies, doubts and worries running through our minds—so our mind cabinets are quite similar.

I have used traditional notation, colors, forms, gestural conducting to demonstrate the commonality between us. Some of this will be processed organically by every human that interacts with psyche of another person. The three movements of Cabinet of Wonder will not intentionally break, unless there is a need for set change—but they are designed to segue right into each other as a solid representation of the constant state of mind flux. I don’t want to impose boundaries on the work, so we will all meet inside these movements and hopefully touch and relate to each other, right here, right now. 

RAGE for Chamber Collision is my sonic reaction to our human condition. Altered Consciousness is a spatial conversation between the members of the ensemble, myself and the space in which we find ourselves as humans that must relate to each other positively.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of creating (and conducting!) music that utilizes conduction, graphic scores, and improvisation?

RB: It’s all about making a connection as a creator and transmitting my intent simply so that we can create new sonic landscapes. It’s so gratifying when you can develop a language with musicians with whom you’ve worked for over 25 years, but I get the same thrill, excitement and fulfillment from making a connection with absolute strangers—that we can meet, quickly size each other and get to the task, the love and joy of making the music happen.

renee-baker

SI: You’ve been at the forefront of creative and avant-garde music for the past 25 years. What inspires you most about this music?

RB: Oh no!! I’m a baby in the world of creative music. Having spent most of my life in the symphony orchestra. This culture came as a welcome addendum to my creative world. As I have listened and accessed the never ending world of creative, intuitive composition, I am constantly surprised by the creativity of fellow humans. I don’t think we can exhaust the ideas—I hope to maintain this openness regarding creation and intuition always. I never stop studying scores, listening to new works, exposing myself to even the most extreme of performance arts because the disciplines are intersecting each other at a rate I’ve never seen before.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and conducting. How has being a woman, and especially an African-American woman, shaped your experiences in these roles?

RB: I’ll make this easy: everyone, men and women, are so bent on getting their piece of whatever pie they think they deserve, that the energy needed for truly creating your vision and sharing that with the universe, gets pushed aside. I have certainly faced racism, discrimination, sexism, ageism, classicism, brown eye-ism, straight and nappy hair-isms—it just doesn’t end.

But it’s not new. When you’re smart, front, and present AND a woman, you have to be ready for your Weeble moments. Remember the Weeble commercials? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down? There you have it. I formed the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and my chamber orchestra in Berlin, PEK Contemporary Project, because I didn’t want to be bitter about possibly not being given opportunities to have my music heard. I’ve been wonderfully lucky and terribly unlucky in many circumstances.

The biggest elephants in the room are racism and sexism—okay, got it! So what do you do about? If you feel your voice MUST be added to the chorus of creativity and made tangible for the world to taste, then make it happen. I’ve started over 20 new music ensembles, each fitting a different music demographic, and have had a marvelous time doing it. Not to sound like the happy Pollyanna, but if the wall keeps appearing, be sure that your work can stand up, and you climb on it and go over the wall. As a woman you will have some luck, but you have to provide your own working world sometimes. Be prepared, say yes, show up!!!

renee-baker-with-violin
SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs and conductor podiums?

RB: CREATE YOUR PLACE!! Puuuuush!!! Be confident that you deserve an opportunity and go after it. Be sure that you’re going after YOUR idea of success—we’re not all going to have Beyoncé-like careers, but diversify your talents and keep your practice fresh and relevant. Podiums are opening but there are still criteria that some of us will never fit—go ’round it!!

 


SI: What are you most looking forward to with the October 28 performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

RB: I want to experience new, creative minds and ideas from artists who have had special journeys of their own. I hope we can add to each other’s experiences and for the audience, I want them to meet and experience the authentic creative mind of Renée Baker. My way of seeing the world through music is an open door.

Renée Baker’s Seattle performance is this Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Women, Creativity, and the Classroom

by Kaley Lane Eaton

Well, here we are. It is 2016, and 14 of the top US orchestras have programmed zero works by female composers in the 2016-2017 season. The U.S. presidential election has exposed various unsettling realities that women experience on a daily basis, much of which is particularly relatable for women in leadership positions in male-dominated fields.

As a female composer working towards my DMA in composition, after spending years entrenched in feminist liberal arts colleges and female-dominated opera programs, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of women; indeed, recent studies have shown that gender imbalance in favor of men can actually contribute to health problems for women in those fields. But the imbalance in our field need not be permanent.

In 2013, as part of my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study titled “Women, Creativity, and the Classroom” with the goal of highlighting how women versus men are conditioned to experience their creativity in the music classroom. As my study found (and additional research supports), gender imbalance in creative leadership roles is rooted in K-12 classrooms across America.

The lack of women in our music education paradigm is rooted in the lack of presence of women in the actual world of music. The popular new music blog NewMusicBox conducted an informal study of progressive chamber ensembles that focus on performing the work of recent and living composers, calculating the percentages of their season repertoire composed by women:

Both interpretations of these pie charts are troubling: that women have written only an average of 16% of all existing new music, or that these ensembles are deliberately selecting such a small percentage of actual existing repertoire.

These numbers reflect the kind of education that girls and women receive in school and higher education: A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca, the standard music history text used in most institutions, includes only eight mentions of women as composers in its 1136 pages. Consistently, only 15.8% of doctorates awarded in music composition and theory go to women.

Despite the wealth of research that points to a universal (although with variation) aptitude for creativity among children, there is a gap in research that examines how each gender navigates creativity in differing social circumstances. Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking work illuminates the fact that pubescent girls deal with dissociation, a psychological phenomenon where one questions the validity of experience and hesitates to express experiences authentically.

Gilligan notes, “If [girls] speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships.” If we assume this truth, then young girls feel their relationships are at risk when they express their authentic selves, which distances them from the desire to pursue creative and expressive work. This was the concept I attempted to unearth in my research, and my findings prove dissociation is well at work within the minds of our young girls.


Methods Phase I: Surveys

I undertook a variety of methods to collect data from two 6th grade drumming classes and two 9th and 10th grade (combined) choir classes: during the initial phase, I administered a detailed survey in which I asked students to rank their feelings towards, enjoyment of, and beliefs about their creative activity. Students had the opportunity to justify their numerical rankings with written responses, which most chose to do – these responses heavily impacted my conclusions. On the same survey, I also asked these students to list their musical role models.

Below is a selection of questions and their results, visualized into a graph. A “5” on the answering scale indicates strong agreement, and a “1” indicates strong disagreement.

To read the full study, which featured a series of six questions, please click here.

Survey Question: I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities.

6th Grade Responses
6th-grade-first-question

9th/10tGrade Responses
9th-grade-first-question

Findings:

  • All girls who answered with 2 or 3 indicated a fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or cited their lack of experience with music. Their responses showed high social awareness: “my peers will think,” “they will laugh,” etc.
  • High school girls indicated that mistakes were a major component of the activity: those that answered 4 and 5 had justifications like “I might mess up but I know it’s ok,” and those that answered low cited reasons such as “I make too many mistakes.” As our improvisation activity had no possible “mistakes,” the girls were allowing a fabricated idea of the “mistake” to inform their comfort level.
  • Many girls of all scoring levels indicated they were low in self-esteem and therefore did not feel comfortable taking risks.
  • By contrast, 6th grade boys answered with only 4s and 5s – showing strong confidence in risk-taking. These boys explained that improvising and risk-taking were enjoyable regardless of circumstance, and not a single boy used any vocabulary relating to the opinion of their peers.
  • High school boys indicated confidence was related to skill – “It’s fun because I am good at it.”
  • Not a single survey from a high school boy used the word “mistake” or any of its synonyms. One survey did say rather poignantly, “No risk and no consequence to improvisation.”

Questions in the survey phrased using “I believe” were designed to assess students’ levels of self-esteem and self-confidence in their creative ability. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not accurate predictors of actual talent and creativity in either men or women from childhood to adulthood, with men typically showing inflated confidence and women showing low self-esteem. My findings support that; these questions showed great gender and age disparity.

Survey Question: I believe I have leadership skills in music.

6th Grade Responses
question-2-6th-grade

9th/10th Grade Responses
9th-grade-second-questionFindings:

  • This question showed not only the greatest gender disparity in both ages, but also the greatest change from 6th grade to high school. Genders answered in nearly opposite percentages in all grades.
  • Comments that students left on surveys display the same trends that the other questions indicate – where boys viewed leadership as an expression of individual power, girls viewed leadership as a construction primarily in place to help others. Girls were careful not to justify their high scores with self-praise but rather with acknowledgement of group needs.
  • Girls that cited strong or neutral attitudes towards leadership skills in both 6th grade and high school were unanimous in their view of leadership as a role that is in place to help others, rationalizing their scores with statements such as “I work well with groups,” “Students tend to ask me for help,” “I want to encourage others,” and  “I’m not the best but I want to help others.” Responses such as these reflect the tendency for girls of all ages to divert positive attention away from themselves and attribute it to outside forces.
  • Boys showed waning confidence with age in their responses to this question as well, but also illuminated their conception of leadership as fundamentally different from the girls’ conception: leadership was a mark of success, of individual power and talent – not a role primarily concerned with helping others.
  • Boys in all grades cited achievement, confidence and skill (or lack thereof) as a means of justifying their leadership scores. Those that answered low said they were “not a leader”, “not comfortable”,  “just started with music” or “didn’t play an instrument” and those that answered highly said “I play in a band”, “I’m great at music”, “I love music,” “music is my strength,” and “I’ve led musical groups before.”
  • This is important to contrast with the high school girls’ answers – boys felt that their passion and their strength was enough to qualify them as a leader, whereas girls unanimously cited nomination from their peers as the primary reason for pursuing leadership.

Overall, these responses illuminate the central problems that divide our genders from childhood throughout adulthood: society places more pressure on women to be a certain “way,” whatever that “way” may be. In 6th grade, girls begin to display awareness of society’s pressures: that in order to succeed, they must fit someone else’s definition of who they are. Because creativity and identity are intricately intertwined, this inhibits the development of their creative life. Boys, however, respond to different pressures and display less fear of failure. The pressures of masculinity that so shape their adolescent life predispose them to risk-taking in order to be accepted by male peers. Creativity is simply another form of risk-taking, and the likelihood that boys will face societal rejection upon taking creative risks is much smaller.  


Methods Phase II: Expressing their experiences

During the second phase, I designed an improvisation activity for 6th grade students and asked them to write, draw, or somehow represent on paper their experience during the improvisation activity. Following the written activity, each student had the opportunity to share his or her experience with the class. I created two poems, one using the girls’ responses and one using the boys’, of which each line is a student-written response.

Girls
My mind was all over the place.
They might think I’m crazy.
I felt like my mind was an unknown puzzle trying to find the right pieces, the pieces were my peers, community.
What would work with the other person?
I was thinking about sounds that would sound really good or bad.
What I did sounded bad.
I felt like we were a community.
I was nervous that if I messed up maybe some people would laugh at me.
We are a community.
With each beat came harmony.
The rhythm didn’t come as planned, so I thought of something else.
I had nothing to be afraid of.
I stare at the window as I drum my new idea and try to tune in.
I am listening with the beats on my hand, their beats on my ears, and the drum in my heart.

Boys
My mind was blank.
In my own world with my own beat yet fully aware of the beats around me.
At first I didn’t know what to do but then I got into rhythm, it was really easy for me. I think I am nervous because it’s out of my comfort zone and I don’t really do music.
When I put my hand on a drum I can feel it lingering through my fingers.
I felt very musical and a little offbeat.
When we started the first improv I didn’t have a clue what to do. When we did the second I had a better idea.
A certain rush comes through me that I can’t explain, it feels like I could do anything I put my mind to.


Who will I be?: Musical Role Models

When I researched this same group of students’ musical role models, the results were harrowing:

  • Of the 27 artists mentioned by both 6th grade girls and boys, zero were female.
  • 50% of the 6th grade girls and 13% of 6th grade boys indicated they had no musical role models. 26.6% of high school girls and 17.6% of high school boys had no musical role models.
  • Comparing this data to the survey data, in which 6th grade girls answered with lower scores for each question across the board, there seems to be a correlation at this age between available role models and creative confidence.
  • 30 high school girls mentioned 46 artists, 20 of which were female. High school girls represented the most diverse stylistic tastes of all samples, with role models ranging from classical, pop, and classic rock to musical theatre.
  • Interestingly, this sample was the only group to mention family members as role models, with 4 of the 30 girls citing relatives as major musical influences. Four high school girls also mentioned their classroom music teacher – who is a woman – as a musical role model.
  • In stark contrast, the 18 high school boys surveyed mentioned 40 artists, only one of which was female. Only one high school boy mentioned family as an influence and only one mentioned the classroom music teacher.

The numbers are clear: young women and men do not have enough female musical role models. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, of all the samples, only the high schools girls mentioned female artists as role models, and even then, at a lower rate than they mentioned male artists. In order for us to claim true equality in the way we educate our young musicians, both boys and girls should ideally be claiming comparable numbers of male and female role models.


What Can We Do?

The classical music world – especially the portion that contains new music, in which living composers are the vital presence – is a relatively small portion of society. There are few opportunities to have conversations about gender representation because the majority of white, male composers and conductors in leadership positions have rarely had to battle institutional barriers; thus the conversation of institutional barriers rarely makes the top of the agenda.

Further, in speaking with some of my composing colleagues and collecting survey data from adult, professional female composers and conductors, many women noted hostility between women in our field. Often, this is reported as conflict between women who celebrate their gender as an important factor of their art and women who refrain from explicitly speaking about it. Thus the gender conversation, in gender imbalanced situations, can range from inspiring, to awkward, to, unfortunately, silencing or even harassing, as reported in several surveys. The unpredictability of this kind of conversation based on past experiences, according to these same reports, often prevents women (and men) from bringing it up.

The best way we can improve the situation is to address the problem, and to think critically about the music that we consume, study, perform, and share. Music teachers must work tirelessly to develop their own curriculums that include equal representations of female and male composers and creative role models and refrain from using old textbooks that do not provide accurate representations of women and people of color. This is no easy task, as even the most dedicated of progressive teachers often fail to provide their students with fair numbers. It is, however, feasible. There is enough available published music for school music ensembles to be able to provide close to equal representation of female composers at school concerts.

Where possible, educators can incorporate composition into school curriculum to allow for student compositions to be presented in concert as well. Educators may also opt for an active role in the pursuit of equality by asking students to write letters to publishing companies and arts organizations that fail to provide decent representation of women.


Conclusions

Our music industry, in all its facets – from underground indie rock to classical music to corporate pop – reflects our societal attitude towards women: we are not creative agents, but targets of male visions. This mentality has permeated our school system, where the same dichotomy is enforced in the way that we allow our students to relate to one another socially and in the way that we, as teachers, encourage and reprimand them.

Behaviorally, we expect girls – from kindergarten to high school – to follow rules rather than question them. Every day, the patterns that our girls experience in school are reinforced by the patterns they see in women in the media. As girls age and become more aware of social roles and dynamics, they consequently begin to pigeonhole themselves as appeasers, as helpers, as bystanders. We heap the responsibility of perfect social order in the classroom on our girls rather than expecting equal contribution AND deviation from both genders. Girls of all ages should feel just as comfortable as boys to mess up, to break rules, to be punished – this is how we develop confidence, and this is how we break creative boundaries.

kaley-lane-eaton-with-studentsIn my data, it became clear that over time, girls associate creativity with deviation from the group, and boys associate creativity with individual success. What seems like a difference in vocabulary is representative of our society’s depressingly imbalanced attitude towards the role of women. What results from this imbalance is exactly what we have now: consistently misunderstood female public figures, and very few women in creative leadership roles. This, in turn, reinforces the vicious cycle: in this world, there are few creative female role models and, most importantly, new, relevant art is not being created to its full capacity.

Can our world progress in equality, in empathy, in opportunity for all, if this is the dominant paradigm? My answer is yes: it is in the hands of artists and educators, who are thankfully and wonderfully radical in what they do, to chip away at this paradigm.

Every initiative made by major arts organizations to combat social problems, be they issues of race, social class, gender, or other imbalances in the arts community, serves to help women and girls rise up. Every resilient and brave woman that applies for professorships, fellowships, and grants inspires a friend, student, or colleague. Every mother that shares what her day at work was like with her daughter creates an inspired young leader. Every woman that makes a record inspires a girl to write her first song. And every vote made towards candidates, initiatives, and policies that address equity helps to create a society where women and men both lead and take creative risks. For these reasons, I am optimistic.

Please click here for a full list of references.

REVIEW: Trance Frendz by Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm

by Maggie Molloy

trancefrendz-teaser

Some people like to go out on Friday nights. Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm like to stay in and make music.

Though both are prominent composers, pianists, producers, and performers in the new music world, they prefer to spend their evenings off creating, well, even more music. I guess you could say they’re more than just musical collaborators—they’re best friends. Or rather, best “frendz.”

“Trance Frendz” is the title of the pair’s newest set (the term “album” is firmly rejected by both Frahm and Arnalds), which features music from an evening of improvisation at Berlin’s Durton Studio. It began as a video session of the two performing an improvised duo, in promotion of a different album titled “Collaborative Works: An Evening with Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm.”

But instead of ending the session after the first take, the two continued to improvise throughout the night, ending up with a number of new pieces written and recorded on the fly, with no overdubs and no edits.

What started as a short promo video quickly turned into a 45-minute studio film titled “Trance Frendz,” and the music was included as a second disc in their “Collaborative Works” album.

And now, “Trance Frendz” has officially been released as its own separate CD and vinyl.

Each piece in the set is named after the time in the night when it emerged, with the mood clearly modulating throughout the hours. And yet, the pieces all blur together, unified by the relaxed mood, organic movement, striking intimacy, and genuine honesty behind each one.

“We meet because we’re buddies and we’ve known each other for a long time,” Frahm said in an interview with the Boiler Room. “We eat pizza, drink some beers, stay up way too long and try new things for fun. Everything that we put out is basically just a byproduct of us spending time together and geeking out on music.”

The improvisations are slow-moving and patient, at first led primarily by twinkling piano melodies. But as the night wears on, the delicate piano motives gradually expand to feature growling organ basslines, rumbling drones, and some serious synth.

As the pair continues wandering into the early hours of the morning, the shimmering hum of the piano returns to the forefront with a series of whimsical music-box-worthy melodies, complimented by sweet, subtle vocal humming atop the creaking of antique piano lids and tape recorders. The set comes to a close with soft, hazy piano melodies sparkling amidst a nocturnal calm.

“This music is not the most catchy, not the most hit-you-in-the-face festival-kicking song of the year, or a declaration of: ‘Look at me. Watch how great I am,’” Frahm said. “It unfolds over time, is a little more rich—and I like that kind of humbleness about it.”

It’s the perfect soundtrack for a quiet night in with a friend—charming, sincere, organic, and ambient.

“Ultimately, the fun is in there,” Arnalds said. “The video is a testament to that. It’s in those sessions, in the recordings, and in our friendship.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee by Matana Roberts

by Maggie Molloy

matana-artist-pic1

In the world of music, the saxophone represents many things. It is classical and jazz, it is woodwinds and brass, it is melody and military—it is sexuality and it is soul. And given its multifaceted role in American musical traditions, it is also a fascinating lens through which to explore America’s complex political history.

Composer, saxophonist, and sound experimentalist Matana Roberts does just this in chapter three of her massive, 12-part “Coin Coin” series. Gigantic in scope, the series is a visceral musical exploration into the sounds, the stories, the history, and the legacy of the American slave trade—a panoramic sound quilt piecing together the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora.

Each album in the series features a different configuration of instruments and sound textures—the first featured a 16-piece ensemble, the second a sextet, and the third? Just a single performer: Roberts herself.

“Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee” weaves a rich musical tapestry of saxophones, songs, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and spoken word recitations—all composed, performed, and carefully layered by Roberts.

So what does it sound like? Well, it’s sort of like a surreal sonic dream—a musical merging of ritual and spectacle. Roberts’ influences are a melting pot of jazz, improvisation, classical, and the avant-garde, and her album is a vivid wash of colors and sounds, wailing saxophones and spoken word, field recordings and folk music.

But aside from the idiosyncratic sax solos, one of the most striking elements musically is Roberts’ voice. She flows just as easily from mournful singing to spoken texts, folk song fragments to vocal improvisations. If “river run thee” is a one-woman opera, then Roberts is the star, viscerally experiencing each twist, turn, and tragedy.

Her voice brims with a gritty, earthy, urgent soulfulness, echoed by saxophone moans and static swells. Oscillating tones, ghostly whispers, and eerie electronics providing a foreboding accompaniment—and each track bleeds into the next as she paints a vivid and unflinching narrative, a tragic history of civil rights issues in the U.S.

“I have a particular fascination with history as narrative and how narrative constantly gets cut up and changed and completely taken out of context, or put in context and taken out again,” Roberts said in an interview with Bomb Magazine. “To me history is not linear; it’s on this constant, cyclical repeat.”

Roberts recorded the album in the same Montreal studio she used to mix the first two albums in the “Coin Coin” series. For this third installment, she played the “river run thee” tape back over and over again, responding to what she’d already recorded and adding new musical layers in real-time from start to finish—thus injecting the energy and spontaneity of improvisation directly into the album.

But for all the intensity and intimacy of this one-woman album, “river run thee” is actually an entire symphony of sounds and stories. Roberts took her source material from across generations and geographies, amassing historical and documentary information through interviews, site visits, field recordings, and travels—and for that reason, the album is so much more than just a personal reflection on the state of race relations in America. It is critical musical analysis of our nation’s art and politics: past, present, and future.

“One thing I love about history in the making is that it has shown time and time again that there is resolution,” she said. “It won’t be a permanent resolution, because this country still hasn’t fully acknowledged that it is built on denial. I sense that this is not going to change soon; therefore it’s important for American artists to make work that reminds us of our responsibility for progression. The choices that I make as an artist have a lot to do with that.”

ALBUM REVIEW: “Strum” by Jessie Montgomery

New York-based violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery looks confidently over her shoulder in the cover art for her debut album “Strum: Music for Strings.” Surrounded by the black and white rubble of a broken and buried city, she emerges with strength and poise, her chin held high and her hand on her hip—a golden light amidst the dust and debris.

download

In some ways, the image evokes the artwork of the Harlem Renaissance—the use of color, the stylized portraiture, the message of strength and, above all, hope.

For nearly two decades, Montgomery has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organization, a group which supports the accomplishments of young African-American, Latino, and minority string players. Since 2012 she has held a post as Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a conductor-less string orchestra, and she has also been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition.

“Strum” is the first album dedicated solely to Montgomery’s music, and marks her debut as a leading composer and performer. The album features performances by the Sphinx Virtuosi, PUBLIQuartet (of which Montgomery is a co-founder), and of course, the Catalyst Quartet—Montgomery’s own chamber music group.

The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry, and politics, crafting a unique and insightful newmusic perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history.

The first piece, “Starburst,” serves as a one-movement introduction to the colorful album, highlighting the dynamic energy and multilayered soundscapes to come. Premiered by the Sphinx Virtuosi, the piece is performed with grace, precision, and explosive verve.

What follows is a markedly more soulful and melancholy requiem titled “Source Code,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. The one-movement work echoes with the rich musical history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, with many of its melodies and musical textures inspired by AfricanAmerican artists of that era.

“I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings,” Montgomery said of her inspiration for the piece. “Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres.”

Ripe with poignancy, the piece tells a countless tales as its haunting melodies and slow glissandos ruminate through the gorgeous, blues-inspired harmonies.

portrait

Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

Montgomery goes on to explore a wide range of musical textures in “Break Away,” a work comprised of five short movements with added improvisational elements. Written for the PUBLIQuartet in 2013, the piece moves from musical abstractions to songlike melodies, airy glissandos to jazz improvisations. Technically demanding and skillfully performed, the piece explores a vast terrain of musical textures in under 10 minutes and ends with a wildly dissonant bang.


Montgomery
then breaks away from chamber music for “Rhapsody No. 1,” an unaccompanied violin solo which serves as the first in a series of six rhapsodies which she plans to write in tribute to the tradition of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas.

download2

Photo credit: Jiyang Chen

“In paying tribute to this archetypal tradition, I have chosen to elaborate by writing for a variety of solo voices across instrument families—violin, viola, flute, bassoon, and double bass—so that the final rhapsody in the cycle is a five part chamber work for all of the instruments in the collection,” she said of the cycle.

Here Montgomery showcases her passion and artistry as a soloist, balancing sensitivity and intimate expression with technical proficiency and fiery passion, crafting a compelling and unforgettable introduction to what’s sure to be a rapturous suite.

But in the case of this album, what follows is another type of rhapsody: Montgomery’s tribute to the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra, Montgomery’s “Banner” begins as a simple variation on the theme of the U.S. national anthem, but quickly expands into an exploration of world anthems and patriotic songs, begging the question: “What does a 21st century anthem sound like in today’s multicultural environment?

For Montgomery, a 21st century anthem pays tribute to all of America’s wide-ranging cultures, while also allowing space for the possibilities of new and ever-changing folk and popular idioms. She explores as many as she can in just under 10 minutes, drawing from both classical and folk traditions while also incorporating the high energy and rhythmic verve of marching bands, drumline choruses, multilayered fanfare, and more.

The album comes to a close with the title track, “Strum,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet. Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending to Montgomery’s debut.

And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Improvisations for Theremin and Piano

by Maggie Molloy

Ku_CarolinaEyck_Bild2

The theremin is not just for eerie sci-fi film soundtracks anymore—theremin prodigy Carolina Eyck is proving that the instrument once restricted to flying spaceships and intergalactic sound effects could just maybe have a wider range than we thought.

Eyck studied theremin from a young age with one of history’s most influential thereminists, Lydia Kavina. By the time she was 14, Eyck had developed her own technique, which she later published at age 17 in a book titled “The Art of Playing the Theremin.”

Now one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, Eyck has performed and taught workshops around the world, and has collaborated with many prominent artists in both classical and contemporary musical settings.

In her latest project, she collaborated with pianist Christopher Tarnow to create an album of improvised theremin and piano pieces which push the boundaries of this electronic instrument beyond simply outer space.

 

The result is a new type of otherworldly sound—one that is haunting and ethereal, dark but unmistakably sincere.

The album, titled “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano,” combines primarily classical harmonies and counterpoint with the spontaneity and freedom of more avant-garde and experimental musical genres.

Though the two Leipzig-based musicians had originally considered recording an album of through-composed classical music, after discussing repertoire with their producer Allen Farmelo the three decided to create a fully improvised album.

“I was craving a more daring and collaborative approach to working together, one that would allow the studio to become a site of mutual creation rather than just documentation,” said Farmelo, who produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. Farmelo is the founder and director of Butterscotch Records, the label on which the album was released.

In accordance with this egalitarian spirit, the musicians decided not to edit any of the material on the record. Instead, each of the pieces appears on the album just as it was performed in the studio.

“On this record what you hear is exactly what was played, and in my opinion the absence of editing lends these performances an organic vulnerability that is not always heard from meticulous virtuosos,” Farmelo said. “With vulnerability comes depth as we sense something slightly uncertain moving out on the horizon beyond mastery. I wouldn’t trade that depth for any amount of perceived competency, and I consider it one of this record’s most potent qualities.”

In order to create a sense of focus for each of the pieces, Farmelo wrote short phrases on dozens of sheets of paper and gave them to Eyck and Tarnow. Each phrase provided a general image or free-associative idea from which the musicians then created an improvised piece. The eight pieces which made it onto the album get their titles from the phrases that inspired each of them.

For instance, “Earth and Sky” features Tarnow performing as the earth and Eyck as the sky. Her theremin whispers shrilly above Tarnow’s rumbling and echoing bass chords, creating an austere but entrancing musical texture.

The musicians switch to a fuller sound for “Somber Waking Up,” which features a repeated melodic theremin motif weaving in and out of a softly pedaled piano backdrop.

“A Whale in Love” takes a more thematic approach, with the theremin’s tone as large and lethargic as a whale floating slowly through Tarnow’s intermittent harmonic waves and glistening melodic bubbles.

“Quiet Snowfall” features vivid musical imagery as well. Tarnow’s piano melodies sparkle softly above Eyck’s ambient, icy theremin backdrop, reminiscent of delicate snowflakes twinkling on a foggy winter night.

The timbre changes again for “Deep in the Earth,” in which Eyck’s theremin growls and rumbles as though it is drilling deep into the ground, the piano echoing its descent with its ominous intermittent chords.

The album ends with the unforgettable “Haunted Ballerina.” Tarnow sets the stage with jingling piano motif that repeats itself over and over like an eerie, broken music box. His haunting piano motifs dance with Eyck’s ghostly, low-pitched theremin melodies to create a lingering sense of darkness that lasts long after the final notes have been played.

With its remarkably wide range of musical timbres and textures, “Improvisations for Theremin and Piano” proves that the theremin is capable of much more than just cheesy sci-fi sound effects. It showcases the instrument as a genuinely heartfelt and expressive musical instrument, and in doing so, it pushes the theremin into truly uncharted territory.