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"Nine Tales for Nonet" an improvisational exercise for nine musicians

My area of research as a music lecturer at Brunel University involves improvisation and composition, and how the two interact with each other. This also was the subject of our one day conference "Interfaces- where composition and improvisation meet", held on 1 December 2000 at Brunel’s Uxbridge campus. Included in that conference was the premiere of the aforementioned piece by an ensemble composed of London’s leading improvisers. In this writing I will briefly describe how I conceived "Nine Tales", the process of actually putting it together, and pose some questions that I, the performers and an audience might wish to ponder regarding the interfaces that my composition, and performance of it ask. I will also endeavour to demonstrate aspects of "Nine Tales" by inclusion of five excerpts I have chosen which can be accessed by audio file. While the excerpts are brief and cannot fully demonstrate the full scope of the piece, they might enable the reader/listener to grasp some of the ideas that my research is looking into.

Composing works featuring improvisation in an ensemble context for jazz and related musics have techniques and practices that are now beginning to evolve. It has often been the case that the work will be written from beginning to end utilising and inserting improvisation at various intervals. Duke Ellington’s seminal 1944 suite "Black Brown and Beige" and Gil Evans’ reworkings of Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess" for Miles Davis in 1958 are good examples of this. The purpose of the improvisation interludes in those pieces are largely to develop the composition, as well as provide a vital, expressive form of communication (Miles, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges,et al)directly from improviser to listener. More recent examples have followed this tradition including British composer Marc Anthony-Turnage’s "Blood On The Floor" (1999)- a through composed improvisational vehicle for Jazz stalwarts John Scofield and Peter Erskine, among others. These examples are clearly written compositions first, lending themselves to being extended for improvisation, as and when needed.

My intention in "Nine Tales" for Nonet" though, was to create nine different episodes ("Tales") for improvisation, surrounded by other fully notated ensemble passages. The composition then is based on nine improvisations alternating with the written material. In other words, one long series of improvisations balanced with written sections interspersed to perhaps provide the "glue" and structure to prevent the work as a whole from running amok, musically speaking.

One important factor in this process was to hand pick the players in the ensemble before constructing the improvisational episodes. Knowing the players’ musical personalities, style and potential was extremely valuable creating a musical setting for them to improvise in. Having done this, I set about finding a group of notes from which to build the piece. I used the word INTERFACE as a starting point. I derived six notes to start with by creating a musical "spelling" (assigning a musical note to a letter) of INTERFACE using chromatic and whole tone scales (for variety of choices). The result being the notes F A C E Ab B. See below diagram for how this "spelling" worked out.

Notes F A C E from INTERFACE

Remaining notes Ab B are from-

H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z (Letters)

Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A B Db Eb F G A B (Notes)

----chromatic scale----whole tone scale----

The working process for the actual composition itself involved three main areas-

  1. Creation of nine different settings for improvisation-This included choosing three different tempi, rhythmical ostinato patterns and a four-chord sequence (based on the six notes) which was played in one order and then later in its retrograde (reverse) order.
  2. Melodic and Harmonic material derived from six notes- A very organic process involving the mixing and matching of harmonic and melodic structures based on a simple reservoir of six notes.
  3. Scoring- The actual pen -to -paper exercise of stringing all of the improvisational episodes together with written sections realising a through composed piece for performance.

Questions for the composer and listener that might arise from performance of "Nine Tales"

At what point(s) and why does the composition (written material) defer to the improvisation?

At what point(s) and why do the improvised sections defer to the compositional elements?

Can an experienced and capable improviser be developing the profile and intensity of the composition beyond that of the composer? If so, who is really doing the composing?

What information does the improviser need from the composer to fully realise his/her role in the utmost performance of the piece?

How/what can an improviser contribute to significantly add or enhance the overall composition?

As a means of portraying the different aspects of "Nine Tales" I have chosen five distinctive excerpts to demonstrate the different colours and emotions of the piece. These excerpts may also provide clues to finding answers to the questions posed above. The exerpts are in MP3 format. To hear the excerpts click on either 96Kbps, 192Kbps or 320Kbps depending upon the speed of your internet connection. Note: you must have a media player capable of playing MP3 files. To download Windows Media Player click here.

Excerpt 1- Clarinet/Piano Introduction

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The clarinet introduces the slow melodic theme of the piece followed by a brief reflective improvisational conversation with piano. As the written material resumes, the two lead us into a much faster tempo, setting the pace for Excerpt 2.

NB- The clarinet is the first and last instrument you will hear in the work and in many ways can be seen as the "narrator" of the piece. While it doesn’t have an overly featured improvisational role, it does visit intermittently throughout, commenting briefly and stepping aside. The role of the piano is also a key one- providing supportive, yet interactive backing to clarinet, trombone and bass solos, as well as a very open and extensive unaccompanied solo at a key emotional juncture in the piece.

Excerpt 2- "Improvised" Ensemble Section

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The intent of this section was to create the impression of players improvising when in fact what they are playing is fully notated. The six players are playing three different unison lines overlapping between them making it difficult to distinguish which group is playing when. This excerpt can be compared and contrasted with Excerpt 5 where the six players are again playing simultaneously but improvising freely this time, not reading notes.

Excerpt 3- Alto Sax and Drums "Conversation"

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This excerpt can be viewed as the most intense section of the piece, pitting the fiery and sometimes shrill cry of the alto saxophone against the thundering, yet incisive drums. While the alto saxophone might appear to carry the lead voice in this section, the intention was to draw the listener in to the inner dynamic of conversation between the two.

Excerpt 4- Trombone/Piano Duet

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This section provides a welcome tonic to the intensity and angularity of the alto sax and drums that preceded it. The liquid and vocal ambience created by the trombone is supported by interjections by the questioning yet driven piano musings.

Excerpt 5- Fully Improvised Horns Conversing

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This excerpt fully explores the potential of developing intensity and interaction through simultaneous improvisation. While it is clearly more active and unpredictable than Excerpt 2, there are possible similarities between the two, having to do with the gradual development of the emotional range of the piece.

The following musicians were involved in the above excerpts:

Frank Griffith- clarinet and tenor sax

Tony Woods- alto sax

Mick Foster- baritone

Henry Lowther- trumpet

Steve Waterman- trumpet

Adrian Fry- trombone

Alex Maguire- piano

Jeremy Brown- bass

Simon Pearson- drums

Frank Griffith, Brunel University, June 2001