How we improvise – Bringing the arts into every day

By Felix Mills, Community Engagement Manager

Which of your feet hit the floor first this morning? How many times have you said the word “and” today? Chances are you didn’t plan either of these things – you improvised; we all do. Just as it happens in your typical day, there are many different situations, structures, concepts, traditions, and vocabularies that inform and lead to improvisation in music and the arts; many ways improvisation can arise, both consciously and unconsciously.

With both improvisation and composition, creative music not only organizes sounds in new ways, but it can also be a vehicle through which to learn new things, a fresh lens to look at what we already know, or a mirror to reflect back our stories and day-to-day lives. While our everyday improvising seems to happen naturally, what could you learn from artists who are able to beautifully communicate, to unfold narratives, and to unlock emotion, through improvising?

If you’re curious about using the arts for learning and reflection, you might have already attended one of Soundstreams’ Encounters events at the Gladstone Hotel where we bring artists together to discuss, perform, and answer audience questions on themes and ideas. If you’re still reading, whether you’ve joined us at Encounters before or haven’t yet made it, you’ll surely be interested in our next free event. It’s a chance to enjoy conversation, performance, and spontaneous interaction surrounding an art form that we practice every day – improvisation. All of us at Soundstreams, composer Nick Storring, pianist, Chris Pruden, bassist and improviser Rob Clutton, and Iranian Tar player, Araz Salek encourage you to come to the Gladstone for a drink, live music, and four diverse perspectives on what makes great improvisation.

Encounters: Making it all up?
Monday, February 24, 2020, at 7:30 pm
The Gladstone Hotel, Melody Bar (1214 Queen St W)
Space is limited – reserve your free ticket today!


Appetizers from the artists

Learn how Chris Pruden moved into the world of musical improvisation and how Nick Storring improvises in both performance and composition:

Chris Pruden

What does improvisation mean to you? Why do you improvise?
“Some of my earliest live music experiences were at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I would often go to the side stages where a variety of different artists were grouped together. Usually, they would take turns playing a song or two but occasionally they would play together and join in on each other’s songs (adding different layers/instruments, singing backgrounds, taking solos, and even improvising new lyrics). The fact that they could do that baffled me. I didn’t understand how they were doing it and the results often felt exciting and special. My experience of learning music at that point was practicing and performing the RCM repertoire on the piano, and if it wasn’t on paper it basically was inaccessible to me. I didn’t consider music seriously until I was learning jazz after high school (at MacEwan College) and playing in bands around Edmonton. In some ways, improvising provided me with tools to communicate with others and make music more informal and personal. I started to associate my own voice with how I could improvise and interact with others. Improvising also allowed me to appreciate music as a process-based, rather than result-orientated. The idea that you could endlessly take things apart and create music with such simple elements made everything feel limitless.”

Photo of Nick Storring by Green Yang

Nick Storring

What does improvisation mean to you? Why do you improvise?
“Improvisation for me, regardless of the context in which I am doing it, is always a means to access my imagination in a way that feels both embodied and spontaneous. It’s where the tactile and aural meet, and it’s one of the primary ingredients of all domains of my practice as a musician and composer. I grew up playing cello in the Suzuki Method, where the student learns to listen to, and copy the teacher before reading musical symbols. I credit this with shaping my outlook and am grateful that this approach provided my foundation. While its detractors love to talk about how its approach inhibits “musical literacy,” I’m a huge supporter of training one’s ears over their eyes. After all, the sound is infinitely more fundamental to music than any notation. You eat food, not the recipe! Suzuki training shares its basis with improvisation in that both are predicated on listening and responding. It’s just that as an improviser your response is not scripted. When I perform in concert scenarios, I am very frequently improvising to some degree. Sometimes completely, other times, it’s within parameters. I believe that improvisation — especially when emerging from relationships you cultivate and invest in with other performers — is a viable way, in and of itself, to generate music. Improvisation has also always been a tool in my composition process. Arguably my primary tool. My work as a composer divides roughly into two worlds. I compose work for others to perform using notation. During the gestation of one of these pieces, I’m often using physical instruments or my voice to generate or imagine material. It’s important that my music has a tactile quality to it all stages. Many of my scores involve a degree of improvisatory agency on the part of the performer(s) as well. For the other side of composition practice, improvisation is absolutely integral. The other aspect of my work is created “in the studio” but it’s a stretch to call it electronic or even electroacoustic music. It’s still ensemble music of a sort, but I create it through multi-tracking my own performances on a wide variety of acoustic or electromechanical (ie. electric bass, Fender Rhodes etc.) instruments. By and large, these works are created without using notation at all. They’re generated through super-imposed improvisation or improvisations that crystallized into the material through refinement and memorization. The result is work that would never exist in the real world. The combination and number of instruments and techniques would make it very difficult to replicate. But also the fact that it comes from improvisation means that each layer speaks to my own relationship (often a peculiar one) with a given instrument. This last element cuts to something that I really value about improvisation. While some like it as a way to display their technical facility, for me the best improvisations are vulnerable. Even if someone is wildly ripping across their instrument, it always sounds better if the music is pointing to its own precariousness.”

See you at Encounters!