On May 20th, 2015 I embarked on a two and a half-week European tour, filled with a combination of workshops and concerts. I decided that this time I would focus on my workshops on collective improvisation, targeting conservatory students, advanced amateurs and professional musicians. In addition I had a few solo concerts and improvisational concerts with local musicians interested in collaborating on a spontaneous note. Fortunately Berklee has been extremely generous in supporting the master class portion of this tour, making it all possible. An exciting tour with lots of new musical encounters (I felt like a real musical troubadour), and some extremely rewarding responses from the workshop participants.
The first workshop was at the Conservatory in Amsterdam, straight out of the airplane (with only 1 hour sleep). About 12 students showed up, not bad for a busy exam period. I usually set the students up in a circle on stage, so everyone has maximum communication with each other. My workshops focus on listening skills (listening to, and awareness of your fellow musicians), free improvisation skills and concentration exercises. We started with playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which is always a nice “grounding” experience. The next challenge is to play one beat of the song per person, going around clockwise in the circle. This usually falls apart pretty quickly. After about 20 minutes of trying, the students get it right (sort of), and the tune will sound like a consistent melody. Playing a tune that everyone knows in a completely different way – as a collective- is a great awareness exercise in collectively making music. We continued the workshop with rounds of 1-minute long solo improvisations, and a follow up exercise in which players can ask other players in the circle to “help” with their improvisations.
Each improvisation has to continue the idea of the previous player’s improvisation, or completely contrast the previous 1-minute improvisation. After a few rounds and some discussions, this can get quite interesting and extremely contrasting. Students get to experience the power of being a conductor of their collective improvisations. We finished the last hour of the workshop with a composition by Steve Lacy called “Rain” (creating a rain storm), and my piece Slitch (more on that later). It was a rewarding master class, with a few great responses. I love when exercises that seem so simple (like the Twinkle Twinkle beat for beat exercise) are twisting people’s minds. And the most memorable thing about this workshop was the classical clarinet student who played her very first free improvisation ever. Afterwards she was picking my brain on what her next steps should be in learning to improvise!
After a few concerts with local improvisers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam I boarded a plane to the spectacular city of Lisbon, Portugal on May 27th. I was invited to play a solo concert at the Jazz Ao Centro festival in Coimbra, in the center of Portugal. I stayed two days, met lots of new musicians, ate really well, and played my solo concert in a beautiful old house in a residential neighborhood.
On the 30th I travelled back to Lisbon to teach a short master class at a small musicians’ run club called Desterro. Unfortunately only three musicians showed up, and we played a few pieces by Steve Lacy. But explaining how I have been interpreting Lacy’s music with my band The Whammies, and playing such pieces as Rain and The Oil, opened up a few ears. Most jazz musicians are not used to playing the rain or a substance like oil very often…
A few days later I travelled to the northwestern tip of Spain called Galicia. Their local language is Gallego, a mix between Spanish and Portuguese, their wine is called Albariño, and one of their local tapas is pulpo (octopus). First stop was Santiago de Compostela, a bustling local center with a big university and a 1000-year old cathedral. Santiago is also the end point of the famous Camino de Santiago, an ancient hiking trail that starts in France, and is a pilgrim’s attraction for Catholics and non-religious people. You stay in monasteries along the way, and end at the cathedral, which is scattered with small plants.
The workshop took place at the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanéa, a modern art museum with an educational wing. I was nervous, because my Spanish is limited, and I know many Spanish people are not as well versed in English as the Portuguese for instance. I had to improvise!
We had ten participants, and the first surprise was a man with a microphone and a big wooden suitcase full of books. I asked: “what do you play?” He replied: “poesía” (poetry). He was ready to dig into his suitcase, read from existing books, rip apart old manuscripts and improvise his own poetry on the spot! This was going to be a colorful group, together with a keyboard player from the Dominican Republic, a sax player who met Steve Lacy years ago and was a big fan of his music, and a high school student who plays her bassoon in a rock band. Our flute player warmed up with some serious Bach pieces.
We started with the Twinkle Twinkle exercise, branching out to improvising our own collective, improvised melody in the same rhythm. Then we did the rounds of 1-minute improvisations, and later shorter 30-second ones, working towards a 10-minute composition with much contrast. Conducting again seemed a powerful tool for people to take charge of their own musical ideas, and soon enough people started inventing their own conducting signs. Day one went well, a wonderful group of people from very different backgrounds. Most of them had never done anything like this before.
That night I drove to the city of Pontevedra, for a solo concert at a nice small hall at the University. A small but good crowd of about 30 people, and I realized again that I really like playing small, intimate venues, where the audience really comes for the music, is knowledgeable and listens carefully. It can’t get any better.
On day two in Santiago we started very quickly with the Twinkle exercise, and moved on to the 1-minute improvisations again. This time we greatly expanded this format, and introduced a few variables and rules that open up the structure. Another exercise we did was Trio improvisations. Any player can enter the Trio at any moment, but that means that one of the 3 players has to drop out. Never more than three people can play at the time. This is an exercise in social behavior while improvising; because someone has to decide to drop out while someone else enter the group. I strongly believe that improvising (and making music in general) has a social behavior component to it that every musician should be aware of. If we’re at a dinner party, and one person talks really dominantly all night, the party is usually less fun than if people listen to each other and give each other space to add to the conversation. The exact same thing counts for improvisation. Not playing is as important as playing….
We continued the second day with a few compositions, one of which is my piece Slitch. This piece is based around two people conducting and cueing a sub group of players. It raises many issues associated to clear conducting, timing, accuracy and concentration. We also played Lacy’s Rain piece, which went quite well. Finally we composed a piece on the blackboard, mapping a 10-minute improvisation onto paper. The goal is to guide the collective improvisation, and to discuss what should happen beforehand during the 10-minute timeline. This raises interesting questions on what and what not to notate or plan out beforehand. Santiago de Compostela was another great workshop experience, with a colorful group of people form very different backgrounds. And our poet felt quite at home in the end (I made sure to give him some space to rip his old books while screaming his texts…).
The next day I travelled back to Lisbon, for a concert with Portuguese improvisers at the Granular Fest. The venue was Galeria Zé Dos Bois, an arts complex in the old Bairro Alto district, with gorgeous staircases, a rooftop terrace and three rooms for music. We played an improved set, and the musicians were some of the best improvisers from the alternative Lisbon music scene. The next afternoon (June 6th) was my 3-hour workshop. Surprisingly, most of the musicians from the night before showed up, in combination with some other participants, amateurs and professional players, notably one fellow who confessed that he did not bring his instrument, but he could play his iPad with software synthesizer. This session was similar to the Amsterdam workshop, as we started with Twinkle Twinkle again (once again it was surprising how difficult this was for these very experienced players!). We continued with the 1-minute improvisation, discussions about it, and ended with Lacy’s Rain piece. Another successful workshop, and many of the participants would leave nice messages on Facebook the following days (helped by the fact that there was a professional photographer present). And the iPad-man turned out to be a really interesting addition to the overall sound of the group.
I really enjoy being able to give a learning experience to local music communities. In many places in the world there are pockets of musicians interested in free improvisation forms. Often they come from a jazz background, and are looking to play music with more open forms and less of the jazz tradition. Or they are classical musicians and new music players looking to expand their horizon. Or sound artists that work with electronic sounds or with self-invented instruments. I love the combination of these people, and bringing them all together by giving them an experience of making music together is often eye opening. In many cases they have never had any guidance from more experienced players, and know what they want to do only from records of musicians they like. The responses make clear to me that I should do this more often, in many more places. I thank Berklee’s Global Initiatives Program for supporting this tour.
Jorrit Dijkstra, June 12, 2015