In class today, we:

  1. We did free movement to a recording of “La Sonnerie de St. Geneviève de Paris” by Marin Marais (1656-1728), a French Baroque composer who was renowned as a viola da gamba performer. The piece is a great example of melodic development over a simple ground bass (in this case, G – B flat – A), a Renaissance technique which carried over into the Baroque. We also sang the ground as we moved/danced.  (There’s at least one nice recording of this on the Naxos site, but I can’t link directly to it.  You can find by searching on “Marais.”)
  2. We drew names from a hat to create at-random small groups, who dispersed to various locations to improvise for about 25 minutes.
  3. The instruction for the small-group improvising was to do 5-10 minutes of free improvisation, then experiment with melodic division technique, a common Renaissance practice. Friday’s handout with examples of divisions over ground bass (from the Grove Online articles on “Improvisation” and “Division”) was to serve as a reference. I asked that each group create its own short ground bass, and then use the same ground as a melody to divide, so to speak. The handout shows (among other things) three seemingly simple approaches: begin and end on the original note; begin on the original note and approach the next note by step; and finally use the melody as an outline and “divide” more freely, not necessarily playing all the original notes.
  4. We regrouped in 152 and discussed the small group exercises and the upcoming test/alternative project.

Each group reported that doing divisions on a melody is harder than it looks. Even our virtuoso jazz players found it challenging. Each group tried doing it, found it frustrating, and then moved back to free improvising. Each group reported that the final free improvising really “clicked.”

So was the brief experiment with melodic division technique a failure? After all, no one did it “well.”

That was no failure, I pointed out (or declared, or some combination of the two). We have discussed on and off all semester that idiomatic improvisation skills take a long time to develop. First, you need to learn a vocabulary of musical gesture and internalize them. Then you can freely make music. As Clark Terry has been widely quoted, “imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

So idiomatic Renaissance improvisation is not something you can pick up in 15 minutes. Why, then, would we do it for just 15 or 20 minutes? Because we can also use improvisation as a mode of learning. Reading about (and usually quickly forgetting) a concept is very different than actually giving it a try. Even a small taste is a more effective experience than reading, say, a restaurant review. And it seemed to me that everyone agreed that even this brief attempt at dividing a melody Renaissance-style gave a different insight into what many Renaissance musicians did.

The free improvisations which followed the division experiments worked well, everyone reported. Now the energy had shifted from trying to “follow a rule” to expressing yourself and connecting with others in your group using your own musical vocabularies. Additionally, the experiments which had just disintegrated gave the free improvisations a creative focus. Each group reported that some element of the division experiment carried over.

There’s something magical about struggling with a new technique and then doing free improvisation. In one workshop I attended, we named this approach “rigor and surrender.” Even if the free improvisation has nothing to do with the technique experimented with, the free improvisation has a sharper focus.