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Boundary Points

Boundary Points

Early in my research into composing for improvisers I came up against how to negotiate the boundary between written and improvised materials. If your music contains the two then at some point there’ll be a movement from one to the other. 

What bothered me was clunky transitions, the worst of which is simply ending the written portion and handing over to the improvisation by the musician. Of course, skilled improvisers will blur this and draw from and extend the written material. However, I wanted to explore the blurring of these points, giving equal weight to both improvisation and pre-written – both giving the music a chance to exist as a whole. The improvisation existed to give the piece the ability to feel alive and true to the present moment each time it was played, open to the exciting re-imagination of a myriad of musical voices. This leads to a love of the imperfect, for the piece is never finished, it is open to instant revision on each performance.

I tried to sew in the improvisation into the internals of a piece, not just ‘solos’ but little slivers of life and unpredictability running throughout at different levels within the structure. From small decisions by the performer on note choice all the way to solos where they were ‘let off the leash’ to give expression to where the music had let them, and every point in-between. (Performer collaboration also colours all this, see:

To make this work I realised you had to spend time crafting the boundary points and the relationship between the written and improvised. Interfaces and methods of transition were important tools.

I asked myself questions such as:

  • What is the relationship with the written that comes before and after the improvisation? 
  • What is it’s relationship to the whole? 
  • What will it be like without the improvisation? 
  • What will it be like with only improvisation? 
  • How much could you then take the written and reduce it down and still get the same improvisation?

Some tools I employed were set-ups and bombs. The set-up consisted of carefully crafted material before and after the improvisation that allowed it to function effectively within the piece and the musical language I defined, or to give the performer a good platform – a musical boost – which fired up their musical imagination with my compositional language. You could also strip down how much is written down till all you’re left with is the improvisation.

An example of a bomb would be taking materials used in the compositional process of the written and giving it to the performer to put their own mark on. It could even be as simple as giving them a small number of my pitches, an expressive device I’d worked with and a dynamic instruction (i.e. rapid fire pp).

The idea of the boundary is that there is a relationship rather than a meeting point between composed and improvised sounds. This is something I feel I need to still remind myself of and to explore where this relationship can live in a piece.

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