Who here loves to improvise? If you do, how do you proceed?
Some people visualize improvisation as something very spiritual. Others like to see it as something very technical, where each note must respects the ones before and after it in order to create harmonious progressions. Well, if you are very well versed in the musical arts, improvising becomes more intellectual than, let’s say, if you’re just aware of how a couple of scales work and you know how to doodle around with simple melodies. For the soloist, and especially the amateur, it often has more to do with pushing his musical skill to the limits (often leading to showing off, even to thy self – we are all ego monsters to some extent) than with truely creating coherent melodic lines.
When one thinks of improvisation, one thinks of Jazz. But one must also be aware that the art of the impro originated a while back, like twelve hundred years back. That’s right, in the early stages of the Medieval ages, when polyphony finally started to arise; singers were instructed to add an additional improvised melodic element to the liturgical chant in a style called organum. It is in these most ignorant times, the dark ages of human kind, that it all started. Later, during the Baroque (1600-1750), the classical (1750-1830), and the romantic periods (1830-1900), improvisation thrived engaging music on a whole new playing field. All the greats such as Bach, Mozart, Litz, Chopin, Beethoven, Paganini etc excelled in this free-form discipline, called ‘extemporisation’ at the time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Dixieland Jazz gave it a whole new meaning as it symbolized one of the rare traits of freedom the black communities had over the whites, surpassing in very personalized ways their musical abilities. Now impro is very present in all musical spheres, driven by the many Jazz trends that embraced and defined it.
Anyways this post wasn’t meant to recap the history of improvisation more than it was to introduce its very first orchestrated body language. This language is called Sound Painting and was created by a certain Walter Thompson during the seventies to finally become an official musical discipline by the late-eighties. The story behind its elaboration is very interesting, and feeling I won’t be able to explain it in better terms than the man himself, here are extracts from Thompson’s website recounting how it all happened:
Now Soundpainting is taught and exercised all over the world. If you are interested in learning these specific signs you can do so by buying Thompson’s educational book. A friend of mine recently bought it and learned some signs. He organized a session with 30 friends, most of whom aren’t musicians, asked them to all bring an instrument and instructed them the basics of the soundpainter’s code (because this code can be easily taught to others for rudimentary improvisation). Unfortunately I couldn’t make it but feedback was incredible. Everyone had a blast and my friend is perfecting his skills to reenact the experience.
Mruff to all the Soundpainters out there!
Here’s a performance conducted by Thompson with some musicians and painters. Sorry for those who don’t speak french but this vid gives you a pretty good idea of how it works.
To see another extremely cool Soundpainting video with proefessional musicians, click here. Unfortunately I couldn’t embed it.