I was recently asked to run a workshop on ‘Communicative Improvisation’ for the University of Edinburgh as part of their ‘Innovative Learning Week‘. I have led many workshops on improvisation in the past, some focussed specifically on jazz, some on pop/rock, some on free-improv or improvisation for dance, for example, but never on ‘communicative improvisation’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of exactly what this meant or how I would approach it. Also, when I agreed to do it, the only information about the participants was that they could could be from anywhere in the whole university and that they may not even have any previous practical musical experience.
This got me thinking about improvisation from an interesting angle. It became obvious to me that when a group of people improvise together, ‘communication’ should be an inherent (if not fundamental) aspect of the experience. In order to develop an improvisation that is meaningful and fulfilling, it is important for each active participant to be both productive and receptive simultaneously. There is a responsibility not only to contribute to the group interaction but to modify one’s behaviour, input and personality based on the way in which other musicians play. One has to listen, evaluate, contextualise, surmise and react constantly, all the while, considering what interjection (if any) would be beneficial to the improvisation both in terms of the process (i.e. how it will unfold) and the product (i.e. how it will sound to an audience – imagined or otherwise). In many ways, this is not dissimilar to a conversation.
Think of a conversation taking place amongst a group of people – your participation in this is improvisatory and many of the same evaluative processes take place. Nobody wants to be perceived as the person that talks continually and doesn’t let anyone else have a say – conversely, your participation in the conversation would be negligible if you were the person that didn’t listen to what was going on or contribute. So, you wait your turn, agree with certain things, disagree with others. You encourage some people to continue what they are saying or steer certain participants away from difficult topics, for example. With this parallel in mind, I believe that by considering the improvisatory nature of many forms of communication we can encourage improvisation to be more communicative. Also, by remaining mindful of the challenges that are presented in the group improvisation setting, we can perhaps develop our communication abilities. The aesthetic implications of this are a discussion for another day…
One of the activities I used in the workshop was to have the participants improvise to visual stimuli. The idea was that they would be inspired by the imagery and would improvise as a group to either interpret, describe or accompany the visuals. Again, this was in order to explore the communicative nature of improvisation and the success of this could be measured and evaluated in many ways. This is the subject of a lot of work that I am doing at the moment and something that I am very interested philosophically and aesthetically. However, in the context of this blog post, I would simply like to share the results with you.
The following videos were projected onto a large screen without any audio and a group of players (some of which had never played before and some were playing alien instruments) responded in a way that they considered to be appropriate to the visual stimuli. The audio was recorded and then synched to the video. I think the results are wonderful – as was the group discussion about the process!