Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How did he do that?

Think of this like a "making of" documentary. Programs that let you go behind the scenes and watch how they made a particular movie have become quite popular. It's almost de rigueor to include one with every DVD. And considering last week's Christmas improvisations went straight to video...

I'm going to do my level best not to seem like a magician next year when we talk more about improvisation. It isn't really all that mysterious. And it operates on several basic musical principles. But of course, it helps if you understand them. And you have to know them well enough to put them in place immediately. Otherwise, it is called composition: creating new music by writing a little, thinking, pacing around, rejecting some ideas and developing others. That's composition. A reflective activity. The basic difference between composition and improvisation is that you don't get to change you mind. You have to make your decisions in real time.

I happen to do both, however, and they do inform each other. Different speeds, same process.

Let's get a quick review of the handful of carols I posted last week and I'll give you a succinct approximation of what was going on in my head during some of them:

Go Tell it on the Mountain

This is one of the last carols I did. It was a Tuesday afternoon; I was tired, and I just kept the tape rolling while I reeled off about 5 carols, which was a good thing because it turned out to be the only time this year I've gotten a chance to do that. One thing I've noticed about all of them is that they tend to be more technically contained than sometimes; I wasn't feeling as confident, I suppose. But keeping to a less ambitious series of harmonies (you'll notice the bass part simply rocking up and down) and leaving a jazzier rendition aside (this one's very tame rhythmically) left me with a chance for a more songful melodic line. As I've often reminded my students, many pieces of music have one very strong and two rather weak musical elements. If the rhythm is involved, the melody may be less so. The harmony might be as well. Or two of the three will work together. In this case, I've done what arrangers seldom do with pre-existing pieces (get used to it) and added moving 8ths to the melody, so that the tune is in continuous but unhurried motion. The original tune is almost an outline for the melodic turns. I didn't do much beyond inherit the structure as it stood in the hymnal, but note the additional measure at 2:03 after the quiet chorus and leading into the louder final repetition of the chorus. It felt like I needed another measure to get there. That quiet chorus comes out of a verse beginning "down in the lowly manger"--yes, the text gave me some ideas as well. Though somewhat understated in this setting, the angel chorus, and the star shining forth also make an appearance.

Angels We have heard on High

This one is the closest to the untouched hymn. About the only thing I've done differently (besides the occasional reharmonization) is to add some melodic touches to the glorias. A long time ago I served as a church pianist in a place with an organist--we played duets on all the hymns and because the organ usually took the melody and all the necessary other parts (!) I spent much of my time creating filigree and descants.  Of course, at some point we'll have a discussion about when to leave something well enough alone, and this could be an exhibit. It is Christmas, and if you'd like to hear a carol in its pristine original (or something like it) this may be one. But not quite.

The Friendly Beasts

This is one of the silliest carols I know, but I know well a very silly person who likes it. You'll note that the melody, alone, is ornamented in a very strange fashion (are the animals drunk?). Then, they've formed a college glee club and are singing in four-part harmony, or something.

The concept I want to point out here is the law of economy of motion. In the material world, if you were playing pool, and should you shoot a cue ball into another ball, the first one will stop, but the second will continue with the force of the first one. The energy has been transferred from one to the other. In music, if one of the voices stops -- ie, holds a long note--notice that the other voices rush in to fill the void. This type of attention to various voices makes my improvisations sound contrapuntal (and is, frankly, something I don't hear in the improvisations of other people most of the time).

Then there is a verse with the melody in the left hand, and right hand arpeggios swirling about. This can be tricky for a physically inept clod like me, but I've had plenty of practice playing for church services like our 5:15 Saturday service, where the same handful of hymns are requested by the congregation each week, and in order not to be bored, I try to play them using a variety of techniques. This is one.

Why the cows chose to sing their voice in open fifths I'm not sure. Ask them.

Next come the sheep. There is a short reference to Bach's "Sheep may safely graze" in the intro to that one.

The doves get to do their thing up in the stratosphere. Range is another element we can have fun with here.

It's time for the final chorus--loud, obnoxious, and with a hint of Angels we have heard on high before in the final chord.

See, improvisation doesn't have to be serious.

If you are wondering how on earth I could manage all that in real time, the short answer is experience. I've been doing it for a long time. I have a large stockpile of technical and musical ideas from which to draw, and the chances are even pretty good I've improvised on the same hymns or carols before, and might even remember the outlines of what I did with them the last time so I can either try it again or strike out in a new direction. It is a lot all at once, but we'll unpack all of this in January so if you are new to improvisation I'll give you some of these tools. They'll eventually build on one another.
just a reminder: the homepage at has a ton of seasonal music for listening enjoyment--and it will be up until after Epiphany, for you busy musicians who are too busy making your own music to listen to someone else's.

Also, this is my last chance to wish my fellow organists a Merry Christmas Eve tomorrow, and good luck and much enjoyment at all of your Christmas Eve Services, Midnight Masses, etc. God bless you all.

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