It’s a remarkable sensation, performing a musical score scribbled on the backs of pages in a script; there are so many translations/relations/references going on simultaneously, it boggles the mind. Many of the aesthetics associated with ‘beautiful music’ also apply to ‘beautiful speech’ in a very big way such as phrasing, articulation, dynamics, idioms of rhythmical and intervalic motives, tone quality, and emotional content. Take Orson Welles, for example: watch the first 5 minutes of this clip of “F for Fake” if you don’t believe me. or if you do. It’s cool. So what I’m saying is that it would be counterproductive for me to think of myself as a solo musician since in this setting the actors are filling such a similar role; I try to think of it more like they’re soloists and I’m providing accompaniment, as I’m definitely playing a supporting role in this production.
Currently I’m working on creating a combined music/dialogue score to read off of, mostly to cut down on the 87 page-turns I’ve been going through every run of the show. And if you’ve ever written a score you know that it’s damn time-consuming, especially the time spent tidying it up for ease of reading during performances. To give a better idea of what kind of bullshit one goes through, here’s a page without any time spent formatting (about 3 pages worth of content):
And here’s my first page thoroughly formatted, representing 10 pgs. of script, which is about 9 minutes:
One of the challenges of this score is clearly indicating what I’m doing with my looper and volume pedal, as well as putting enough information to make sure I don’t botch anything. It’s confusing having redundant dynamic control, as I can fade the looper in/out with the volume pedal while simultaneously fading the cello in/out acoustically (bow speed/pressure/contact point). As you can see there is very little music notation for what ends up being about 5 min. of music, but what time I save notating I’ve already spent practicing; I’ve logged untold hours stomping on that little gray metal box while awkwardly holding my cello with one leg.*
As much as I complain about the loop pedal I really do love using it, and it’s done wonders for my playing. It repeats back exactly what you play into it at the touch of a button, so it’s like having a brutally honest, button-activated friend in your practice room at all times. Every out of tune note, every rhythmical misstep, every stupid idea and ineffective phrasing – it’s all there for me to hear over and over and over and over again, which really helps focus in on exactly what needs work.
Much of that practice time was spent figuring out the logistics of how to most effectively use the looper, but I’d have to say that the majority of my time was spent honing my improvising over the various chord progressions of this score. Not only did I have to build up a repertoire of ‘stuff that sounds good,’ but I also had to limit myself to the ideas that fit the context and provide continuity with recurring motives/themes. My primary inspirations for all of the music are the Trout quintet mvmt. 4 by Franz Schubert, Norwegian Wood by the Beatles, and all of the koto videos I’ve watched. And even though I’m not emulating the timbre (sound quality) of the koto anymore, I’m still trying to emulate the idiom with pentatonics and similarly limited chord progressions.
If you’re not an improviser, it may seem like practicing improvising is counter-productive, dissolving the spontaneity of ‘making shit up on the spot;’ but there’s only a shallow truth there. Yes, practicing improv. focuses/directs ones’ spur-of-the-moment compositional tendencies, but the bottom line is that you’re changing the context of creative expression, rather than limiting creativity itself. Creativity needs parameters in order to manifest, so it’s productive to lay down rules/guidelines to give yourself something to resist. Art wouldn’t ever be radical if there weren’t boundaries to push and rules to break.
* Very few other musicians are worse off using a loop pedal than the cellists, as the cello is among the very few instruments that necessitates knees to play. And when ones’ knees are engaged in stabilizing a redundantly expensive wooden box, it’s noticeably more difficult to simultaneously tap little gray switches with passable precision. Cello would kind of suck, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the best instrument ever. BOOYAH.
And here’s my promotion for the show –
it would really mean a lot to me if you make it out to see this!
Sayoko (Katie Bradley) reads to Junpei (Eric Sharp) while cello (me) underscores/lurks
after the quake (2011)
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Dan Norman Photography