After something like 40 years of aspiring to play music, the push/pull of improvisation and tight structure is still the primary source of tension in my musical endeavors. Right up front I think it is important to say that I don’t believe any performance is ever completely one way or the other. Improvisation requires structure to be developed more dynamically, but it is never truly unstructured. Likewise when you are playing a written part, it still requires the performer to adapt dynamically to the performance (even a solo performance).
While I can read music, albeit slowly, I mostly learn parts by ear and my charts are diagrammatic as opposed to using standard musical notation. It has never really been in question: I am firmly in the improvisors camp, and have been as long as I can remember. So when I go to a festival like Rochefort en Accords, and I am relying on my ears to get me through multiple sets with multiple leaders in multiple styles, it can get ugly. It GOT ugly. I picked up some useful techniques for enhancing my schematic approach to song structure while at that festival. But the central problem is that I play improvised and minimally notated music all the time, and when I have to play “inside”, what to me seemed like vast expanses of “inside”… where there are set parts and sight reading skills would make it an easy gig… I’m pretty much fucked.
On the other hand, I ended up playing bass in two groups in the same night, back to back sets last December (see previous post for a summary) with minimal rehearsal, and I knew that I would be fine. I trusted my bandmates in Rochefort, but the circumstances were completely different. The band drilled on set compositions with a lot of synchronized stops, starts, and changes… When I am playing with New Haven Improvisors Collective I trust my NHIC bandmates to work as a unit, and improvise as a unit, and they reward that trust magnificently. A comparison might be the difference between trusting drill-team partners to know their spots, and trusting your fellow birds to make wheeling turns as a group.
As a musician and listener, some of the music that I love would not have been possible without standard notation. It might be fair to say that the majority of it is rooted in conventional concepts of notation for ensemble performance. It is a good way to communicate musical ideas, it transcends spoken language, and it allows musicians who read to perform parts as an ensemble with a lot less of a learning curve. If you are trying to get a horn section to play as a unit, write the parts, or at least write the harmonies. If you need the bass to play specific parts, write them. But when the issue is improvised music, free music, instant-composition… you don’t expect or tolerate any less skill on the bandstand. Improvisation has everything to do with communication, and rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic knowledge is essential to communication.
The one thing the two approaches have in common is that you can’t help but develop skills if you do either of them long enough with enough focus. You might develop some whacky shortcuts to reading charts, but you will develop chart reading skills after years of effort. And the same is true with improvisation. The idea is to build a skillset that allows you to function in your intended area(s) of performance.
And example that is dear to me is ear-training: My ears, they have been schooled to hear implied harmony and rhythm, counter lines, tensions, pedals, etc… very well, though I might not be able to call out the pitch. That is a skill developed from years of making my instruments work in a dynamic and improvisational manner. If I had spent the past 40 years reading charts, my ears and overall skill set would be totally different. I imagine that I would hear true pitches better (maybe…) and not get thrown as bad when I hear the harmonics stronger than the actual notes.
For me, playing “in” is harder than playing “out”. And it would be easier to say “of course” and yes, reading hard-ass written parts is an art and very few people do it well. But the other truth is that improvisation takes the same dedication, the same level of practice and commitment, but it doesn’t hold up to the european-classic concept of “skill”. And that’s fine with me, but it took a long time for me to get there.