Over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time improvising. (I spoke about my parallel career in improv in a previous post.) So, yesterday, I sat down at the piano, turned on a recorder, and ad-libbed an up-tempo.
This is one method of composing, and it can be useful to spark a certain type of tune. For one thing, it’s likely to be singable: if you’ve used your voice to come up with the tune, it’s proof your voice, at least, can wrap your vocal cords around it. The jagged odd intervals that make certain modern music difficult on the singer aren’t likely to appear here. Simpler lines are likely to emerge, and, sometimes, simple’s the way to go.
Of course this is just the kernel: you’re going to need to refine and rewrite it a thousand times before it comes to full flower. (Am I mixing a metaphor? I don’t know enough about plants.) Another use of improvisation is to generate a harmonic palette, the set of chord combinations that you can draw on when writing the music the traditional way. Alone, with no one listening, I’ll test out various unusual sequences and take mental notes on what emotional qualities they appear to contain. Surprising combinations can make pieces fresh. I’m very critical of composers who keep going to the same obvious places, utilizing sets of chords we’ve heard a million times.
In describing the process of writing music, I find I use the word “appropriateness” a lot. A musical theatre score must make some reference to the stylistic elements of the time and place of its setting. For The Heavenly Theatre, set in medieval France, I did a little research and found a wealth of interesting sounds in the modal scales that were utilized then (but rarely today). They “said” medieval France to me. For Area 51, we hit upon the idea of having much of the score sound like a Las Vegas lounge act, since the fabled Area’s located in Nevada. That meant a different set of chords on the palette.
Which reminds me to point out that before improvising that song yesterday, a whole bunch of parameters were in place. I knew it would be* energetic * celebratory * involve a few hard-strumming acoustic guitars * sung by a group, with some characters having solo lines * a big choral finish, possibly a cappella
Before I sat down to play, I knew I wanted to use a suspended chord on the tonic, perhaps resolving to the triad for the second bar. It’s the sort of thing used in a lot of rock – it’s all over Pinball Wizard, and also the opening number of Falsettos, Four Jews In a Room Bitching. (Now that I think of it, the situation in my song is A Dozen or More Jews, NOT In a Room, Doing the Opposite of Bitching.) The suspension/resolution pairing was probably on my mind because I recently recorded my song that uses Chopsticks in its preliminary section, to introduce a very energetic, excited child:
So here I’m sharing a tossed-off ditty before it’s 24 hours old. It’s in such an embryonic state, God knows how it will evolve, or whether I’ll end up using it. But, however good it is (or isn’t), it’s one more tune than I had yesterday morning: a step in the right direction.
And I thought I’d end with an old improv I kinda like. I spontaneously created a theme for a TV sitcom using a familiar title.