I thought I’d write a short blog about decisions in improv as this section of the site has been a little ignored with the success of the radio show. So….
How do we make decisions when improvising? What informs those decisions?
It is hard thinking back to analyse an improvised performance. I know whether I enjoyed it, if I could hear the other players enough in the mix etc, but this has nothing much to do with those constant decisions you make whilst improvising. You are in fluid motion for the span of the performance – making decisions about sound, volume, tone, notes, how you are fitting with the other players; playing under, besides or over them at any particular time. All from moment to moment – if you take too long the moment has gone.
Let’s start at the beginning – who plays first?
That awkward silence until someone takes the plunge and that first note informs the rest of the performance – that’s a bit of pressure there. On the Sound and Music Portfolio Improvisors residential we had this conversation – starting points, with the traditional players saying they found this hard. The electronic players were a little more relaxed. I myself for a solo performance just do ‘something’. Make a noise then react to it for the rest of the show. With other players involved it’s who goes first? I often wait for someone else to start, not sure why – maybe my playing is more reactive than proactive? It is certainly nothing to do with self doubt, I think I like a scene being set that is unfamiliar to me, so the performance will take me from my comfort zone?
We ebb and flow around each other – a good improvisation has all in sync with each other, listening and making a group decision on where to go next – we follow a path we all feel we are contributing to, even if we are silent, then as someone wants to move on they signal to the others and a vote is taken. We either move on or that player is out voted, they then either rejoin the others, play against the others or take some time out. All can work. In some duo settings I have a tendency to break things up, to try and destroy the moment if it’s getting too ‘nice’. This can sound horrible, but can lead to some really astounding passages, or just sound horrible…. Maybe I should not do it? And here is where the problems start – I’m starting to think too much, which is the start of a good improvisation going bad. The greatest improvisations are totally in the moment – the hive mind at work. It’s not completely random. Years of playing, rehearsing, learning and listening come into play but at the moment of playing you aren’t thinking, you are a series of involuntary reactions to everything that is going on in the room. When all the group get to this ‘nothing mind’ then the magic can really happen – sounding a little ‘zen’ there but I do think it holds true with many players.
Some of the worst improvisors I’ve played with have things planed out in advance – then can’t or won’t deviate from this path – you either play along or give up. Not much fun and no magic happens. This does work, I’m a huge fan of the Grateful Dead’s space material – Dark Star I can listen to for hours, Jazz often has a head section but this is pre agreed, this is a framework to play within – the band still play together and go off on wonderful tangents – listen to Garcia and Lesh and how they are locked together during a Dead set – each note leads to the next with infinite possibility.
So decisions come from your inner self? I think so. They reflect your true personality, big egos are hard to lose… Are you a listener? Do you just chatter away with out taking in what anyone else is saying? Do you just agree with what the alpha pack is saying. Much like a great conversation, improvisation moves quickly, everyone get’s to say their piece, there are funny bits, serious bits and bits that grind to a halt. Sometimes there are more than one conversation, other times someone really has something important to say and we listen and support.
The funniest bits of an improv show can be the ending. Has anyone got an idea how long you’ve played for? Is it time to stop? Half of performances kind of dribble out, each player stopping until there is one left – do you join back in or is this the end? We hit silence then do the audience decide if the piece is finished? Sometimes they do, sometimes the room is unsure. Then we all smile at each other and sit down – never mentioning what just happened….
One last thought.
Another conversation I have had often is whether an improvisation is ‘good’ if it stalls, if you can hear the players struggling with each other? Personally I love this. maybe not in a transcendent way that great improv takes you but as a technical thing. Like watching a puzzle being worked out, listening to wrong turns being made, decisions taken and retaken, hopefully eventually clicking into place. Sometimes not. But interesting if everyone is playing to the group, that common language isn’t found but is built upon for the next meeting. To take a football analogy it’s not a scrappy lower league game but a game where the defences of both sides remain unlocked and a fascinating 0-0 draw is played out, you watch long passes not breaking the line, runs just not quite getting there. As I said fascinating to watch, maybe more now and again and the 4-3 edge of the seat game is what we are all looking for mostly.