Creating musical structures using the Lifemusic method is almost impossible to describe without actually experiencing a workshop. The method is rooted in improvisation, the literal meaning of which is ‘unforeseen’ so it is often impossible to predict what is going to happen. At the same time, the Lifemusic ‘tool’ is quite precise in its methods with its use of ‘holding forms’ with titles like ‘Time Holes’. ‘Invitations’ and ‘Bach in the Bath’ and it always amazes me how each group is inspired to create uniquely original and diverse musical forms from these relatively fixed starting points.
The first of the tasters (Oct 6) began with a holding form I call ‘Pulse’ which is, quite literally, a device which has everyone playing a simple pulse in unison, on their instruments using any pitch or none. This always reminds me of Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as “taking a line for a walk” – a pulse being the musical equivalent of a drawn line I guess. As the pulse is maintained and progresses, changes inevitably creep in and slowly the line is transformed into a lively rhythmic ‘chatter’ though the basic tempo is almost always regular. A musical doodle or ‘noodling’ (as Frank Zappa would call it).
On this occasion we had a group of eleven, including some trained musicians (including a skilled professional cellist) and two other string players, though as so often, they had chosen to leave their instruments at home. Many musicians who have been trained in the standard pathways, via grade exams and then often, music academy, find improvising on their chosen instruments daunting. Why should this be so? My feeling is that it is a combination of two factors – firstly a dependence on notation which crowds out the spontaneous and secondly what guitarist Keith Rowe called ‘fingerprinting’ or learned habits which create patterning in the muscle memory which is often difficult to shake off. Most classically trained players learn just one way of playing and holding the instrument which is why Keith laid his guitar on the table top one day and never played again hugging the guitar in the usual way.
In this workshop I was flanked by cello player Sonia (who, despite her classical background has managed to develop her own unique improvised style) and amateur recorder player Peter, an artist and poet whose playful and inventive (even devilish) approach to creative events brought colour to this session throughout and provided endings to more than one of the improvisations. Using the holding forms, beginnings are predictable – it’s what happens when this opening framework recedes into the background that the music making becomes truly improvisatory. But how does the group know when an ending is approaching? How do improvisations actually end? They can be sometimes sudden, unexpected but inevitable, or they just fade out or maybe leave one player soloing. But however they happen, endings always seem just right and should any player try to prolong the piece beyond that moment it either sounds inappropriate or like the beginning of a new piece. On this occasion, as often is the case, each of the endings was followed by a very pregnant silence which tells me that the piece has had its effect, fulfilled its function, leaving the group quite literally speechless!
The second taster session a week later produced very different though equally satisfying results. Having persuaded the string players to bring their instruments along we actually had two violins and two violas alongside a saxophone plus the tuned and untuned percussion played enthusiastically and quite expertly by retired criminologist Nic and Jeremy, a wonderfully generous hearted community worker and councillor who had travelled all the way from Neath out of curiosity. The quality of the string sounds is not just lyrical and songlike but the tunings tends to privilege specific modes – A minor, D minor, G major (or mixolydian if we want to be technical!) Something about these modes combining with the sustained vibrato textures makes everything very soulful so when we were exploring the archetypes later in the session, I prompted the group with a holding form called ‘birthdays’ which is designed to invoke the spirit of Psyche (literally soul) in all her vulnerability and attachment to the ideal of love. Each improvisation is initiated by a single player, one at a time, in the order of their birthdays through the year. I suppose that, even though it might only be felt unconsciously, whenever we contemplate our birthdays we access that most vulnerable moment in our lives, the moment of birth but are also led into the inevitable passage of time, the full trajectory of life and death. In a sense, every musical event with its beginning and ending could be viewed in this symbolic way. Some traditions go even further in claiming that the universe itself was sung into being, born out of a vast, vibrating, life-giving experiment in time and space! Last week, each birthday piece kind of clung to itself, a sequence of big musical hugs, leading to a much longer piece than I had anticipated. But that is Lifemusic – what happens happens. There are no wrong notes, just what the group chooses to play, individually, collectively.
Thank you Philippa, Hedda, Steve, Jeremy, Andrew, Nic, Alison, Anita – in birthday order through the calendar. It was a joy to play music with you!