Collective improvisation workshop

Composition VI – Kandinsky

When it comes to ensemble playing, these elements are essential:

  • Active and sensitive listening (1)
  • Be able to give Impulses that inspire and open new paths (2)
  • Be able to respond to and develop the given impulses (3)
  • The alternation between leading and following in an organic and fluid way (4)
  • Experimentation without fear or judgment (5)

In my experience, the best way to develop these elements is through the practice of free improvisation.

Encompassing many different concepts like free jazz, instant composition, or collective improvisation, free improvisation has become a term with many stylistic connotations. However, whatever the connotations are, in the end, the practice of free improvisation is to put a group of people in a space and start to perform in a spontaneous way, allowing individual freedom with responsibility to the group. To learn how to create and develop in this environment takes away all the parameters related to style, and makes you focus on developing the elements listed above.

Over the last years, as a cellist and musician, I’ve been playing and performing in very diverse contexts: modern jazz, contemporary music, free improvisation, with acoustic and electric instruments, with live electronics, dancers, visual artists and many things in between. This diversity made me realize and understand that the style or musical material is not as important as the way you listen and react to your environment.

I strongly believe that the starting point of making music should be the will to communicate in a sensitive way and share with others. And I think the elements listed above are the tools needed for this sensitive communication and sharing. Once this is learned, it can be applied to any performance situation. Using written, composed, improvised, or any other way of music. Collective improvisation becomes a tool to learn an essential part of music performance.

I work through small games and exercises that use the voice, movement, and actual playing. In this way, this abilities are slowly developed.

Exercises and games

  • Moving silence: Eyes closed. Imagine the silence as a form, how does it look? Does it have a shape? Make it dense and heavy, feel it. Make it light and spread. Take it and focus all the silence in a bubble. Move it around. etc..
                  body  // playing  (1)
  • The bubble: Create a bubble in the center of the group. Put your ears in the center of the bubble. Send sounds to the bubble and listen to the silence after it. How did the sound change the space?
                  voice-body sounds // playing (1, 2, 3)
  • Change/Change-Copy/Change-Copy-Save
    • Start: play a sound until a new instruction is given.
    • Change: change the sound that you are playing. never repeat one.
    • Copy: copy a sound of someone in the group
    • Save: remember the sound that you are playing. The first sound saved will be “Memory 1”, the second “Memory 2”, and so on.
    • Stop: stop playing
              playing (5)
  • It’s a beautiful song: Choose a sound that is not common in your instrument (Bowing the tailpiece, blowing without the mouthpiece, etc…). Compose a small song (30 seconds), with phrases, question and answer, and with a cantabile character.
              playing (5)
  • with yourself/with the space/with others: It’s an exercise to shift the awareness and consciousness from the self to the space and from there to the others. Working on going fluently from one to the awareness to the other.
              movement // playing // playing-moving (1, 2, 3)
  • action/reaction: Use only “word-length impulses” that can be sounds, movements or words on itself. In couples, one gives the impulse and the other react to it. Explore the different ways these roles can be switched.
              voice-body sound-movement (2, 3, 4)
  • solo/duo/solo: In a circle, one player (A) starts a solo. When the next player (B) wants, B starts playing together with A. When the player A wants, A stops to play, leaving B to play a solo until the next player decides to start, and so on.
              playing (1, 4)
  • If and only if…: 1) Play a collective improvised piece.   2) Add a time limit.  3) Add a clear requirement to it. Examples: Start and finish together (before 4 minutes); during the piece, there should be 2 solos and one tutti before finishing together (7 minutes).
              playing (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)