In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:
That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.
Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.
For example, I could:
- sample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
- sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
- improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
- mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
- dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)
The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).
By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!
There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.
Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:
I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!
My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.
Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:
- Have a relaxed and open mind
- Start with some technical practice on your instrument
- All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
- Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
- Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
- Look out for cool timbre
- Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
- Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
- Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
- Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready
It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!
I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.