Thursday, July 18, 2013

Improvising ≈ Composing?

I am now the proud and mildly boggled owner of an iPhone 4, so last night I went searching for an app to use for recording. I came across one called MTSR that is free (which means it runs an prominent advertising banner that you have to ignore). It allows you to record four tracks, and gives a nifty little countdown so that you know when to start. It has a button that allows you to make a looping track or a normal track that doesn't loop (both of any length), and it allows you to delete individual tracks. It's a nifty little tool.

I plucked something rhythmic into the first track, put on headphones, and bowed something over the plucked track. Then I played something over the two tracks put together, and added a fourth track. It was easy, it was kind of mindless (like all improvisation should be), and it was fun. Was it a composition? No. Not really. Was it worth saving? No. Not really.

Sometimes I think that improvisation is more like conversation (particularly when it is conversation with an actual playing person rather than a recorded utterance in the same musical voice), while composition is more like putting ideas into writing. I don't edit my solo improvisations. I often don't remember them. They are often not worth remembering. I don't edit what I say in my conversations, and I always remember more of what the other person said than what I said, because while my conversation partner was talking I was actively listening. Improvising with myself is fun, but it is just about as stimulating for me as talking with myself. Or looking in a mirror.

I prefer the "single-track" approach to improvisation without a recording device to capture the moment. Once in a while, through improvisation, I come upon a musical idea. After I write it down (I have a lousy memory), I might use it for material for a composition, which I will edit far more ruthlessly than I would any piece of prose.

Through this recording device (which is a great tool), I came to understand much about the current looping-based (or ostinato-based) method of "composition" that a lot of instrumentalists not trained in the craft of counterpoint do. Their editing is done on the machine itself. Since they use the recording machine with the same integrity that they use their instruments, the machine sets their limits. Meters and tempos are often constant, and it's very easy to make the countdown the tempo. Dynamics seem to be best regulated by the machine rather than by the player, but I don't know if you can download the data to manipulate elsewhere.

Me? I'll stick to my tried and true ways of writing music, and have a new respect for doing cooperative improvisations with people who have musical ideas other than my own.


Rickard said...

I've recently started to compose (classical music) and I see improvisation as a valuable tool. I do hear ideas in my head sometimes but as my ear isn't good enough I can't write them down so easily. Either way, I use improvisation as a kind of search for ideas. To be more specific I improvise on a digital piano and often record the improvisation on a USB stick and then listen to it (a midi file) and note where it sounds good. If I find one or more parts that sound good I notate them in Sibelius. The composition then gets developed, in Sibelius directly or by using further improvisation and then returning to Sibelius. That's how I do (but I'm just a beginner, only having one finished composition and plenty of work in progress ones). Anyways, I've got the tips to work this way from Nathan Shirley. Besides most composers, at least before the 20th century played one or more instrument and used improvisation as a tool when composing.

Elaine Fine said...

That sounds like a fine method!