improvising outside space and time

January 5, 2011 9:13 AM

How can my collaborator and I improvise when we are 1000 miles apart?

We've been participating in the yearly RPM challenge (album in a month) for the past 3 years. However, he has moved away and we are trying to figure out ways to incorporate a spirit of improvisation into our upcoming album. Obviously we can't actually improvise in real time, but we've come up with a few ideas that might offer a similar experience.

- each of us improvise parts over some other artist's song, then take away the original song and combine our separately recorded parts (we did this last year and it was somewhat successful)
- write out a 'song form' but don't include certain specifics such as time signature (eg: Am for 40 beats, BbM7 for 10 beats, etc) then combine our parts after recording separately. We could even give this a more rubato feel by determining number of seconds to hold a chord instead of number of beats.
- include improvised sections into composed pieces, sort of like a candenza

It seems to me that we'll have most success if we stick to modal or atonal forms, but we're hoping to figure out ways that we can include changes within the comositions. I would appreciate any ideas or suggestions- whether you've tried this sort of thing or simply want to tell me why this is an awful idea. I should also mention that we are each recording with different software, there is a PC vs Mac thing going on as well.
posted by palacewalls (3 comments total)

Comes down to how much improvisation you want to do and what you mean by improvisation. Or whether you're really talking about writing together - which is a closely related though quite different discipline. I'll come back to this at the end.

If you're looking at an orthodox jazz approach (i.e. not necessarily playing "jazz") of improvising over a repetitive set of chords it shouldn't really be a problem. You can lay down a backing track and both blow, fart or scream to your hearts' content, and then pick the best bits for a mix. You won't actually be playing together though - not in the sense of feeding off each other's ideas. One way round that is to take turns in having a go and then pass the results back and forth so that you genuinely are responding to each other's ideas.

If you're going for a free jazz approach, I can't see how you can do that without using some kind of live streaming. No idea if or how that's possible. Total improvisation is pretty much defined as people bouncing off each other in real time and real space. I doubt whether this will work regardless of how good the technology is (you need to respond to body language and other subliminal things that just can't be picked up on computers).

Improvisation's heartbeat is spontaneity. Personally, I think you'll find this very challenging for that reason alone. At least if you want to produce something coherent. So why don't you try doing something totally different. Writing stuff rather than improvising. You can still, obviously, use your creative abilities - you'll just be channelling things in a different way. Worth considering??
posted by MajorDundee at 12:23 PM on January 6, 2011

The way this has been done in the past and I think there are still ways of doing it, is in a loop based approach that is sort of similar to playing live, but with a latency of N bars, where N makes some kind of musical sense.

To take a simple example, person A begins recording. Person B hears this delayed by (say) a second. As soon as they hear it, they start playing along. Person A reaches the end of the predetermined song or loop length and goes back to the beginning. Now they are hearing their part plus person B's part. They start improvising on Person B's part (not necessarily on the same instrument they began on), and so on.

This doesn't have to be done in real time. You can do it by email if you want. You might need some kind of seed track to get you going, but a very simple rhythm and chord track would do it.

ResRocket was based on a similar idea to this. It transmogrified into something but I've no idea what.
posted by unSane at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2011

I suppose 'improvise' isn't actually the best word choice. As MD said above, 'improvisation's heartbeat is spontaneity', which gives a better illustration of what we're after. Spontaneity.

Essentially it seems that any idea we come up with is a variation on 'record your part, send to friend for them to record over. vice versa and repeat. try not to listen to it first.' The trick seems to be creating arrangements that can offer some compositional flourishes without being too confusing. A simple road map that keeps things interesting to 'improvise' over.

An example of something we are trying: Record separate improvs, over a drone, without tempo, but with key changes written in, using a 8 count click that only comes on when the change is going to happen. We are also doing some similar ideas with a consistent rhythmic component (ie a drum track) and some general notes for each section (scale, (de)crescendo, staccato, lento, etc).

Thanks for the suggestions, and thanks to unSane for introducing me to ResRocket. Interesting stuff.
posted by palacewalls at 10:24 AM on January 7, 2011

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