lately, i have revisited the idea of working with backing tracks using computer. I find it is a quick way to lay down a few musical ideas.
generally, i am really not keen on using software instruments, and i really dislike spending time on the screen tweaking midi information. i much rather get my hands straight into matter and sculpt into the immediacy of sound. but still, it is fun to improvise to some groove and it provides a change to abstraction. perhaps that’s what i do late at night when entertaining my neighbours with the horn is not an option.
using ableton live, it is easy to get a few simple ideas down and quickly move on to recording sax lines. and as it happens, i have a few project files waiting for some attention. some are just quick sketches, some tracks are more arranged. and just now, i have been wanting to put to good use the time i have spent working on new ideas with the saxophone.
i have been focusing on ways to develop musical narratives in improvisation. and i have been trying out various ways to find melodic or harmonic paths to navigate outside of established structures while maintaining a sense of evolving melody.
this work has come out of a desire to expand narratives in longer forms. i felt tied down by shorter cycles that keep resolving to the root, and wanted to open up the possibilities of extended melodic development such as found in classical music. however, i did not want to fall into completely random root movements. i guest i wanted a method that would be suited to support free flowing improvised narratives without being tied to a structural approach or to the predictability of a specific, limited linguistic approach. (i really do not take on the idea of limiting musical expression to the form of a language and follow on this metaphor to expression in terms of a personal vocabulary, and the implied pitfalls of predictability. ok, let’s not get too political or philosophical here.)
so to sum up my idea in a few (but rather big) words… i felt i needed to free myself from limiting structures and find an open method for the free flow development of narrative in improvisation. so i had to look outside of cyclical forms that imply repeated return to a root and this sense of continually converging back to a fixed point.
for this, i started working with musical ‘sounds’ that dissociated ‘root’ with ‘tonal centre’. this is a very interesting and important distinction, and looking into Steve Coleman’s idea of negative chords helped a lot. and then, it was just a question of finding ways to detach from the informed habit of sequencing the tonal centre in predictable ways. the only way was to follow the logic of narrative development and of course not falling into the pull of following protocol. a very good bass player once said to me the very simple rule that applies to all music, ‘harmony always follows melody’. it had to be this way, and not the opposite.
so in the development of melodic narrative, i removed the anchor, this force of attraction found in tonal centers, and instead looked for ways to follow the logic intrinsic to improvised narratives, so that the melody would keep unfolding without being tethered. i had to rethink how i looked at musical forms (and even how one looks at form… is emptiness, emptiness is form… remember?).
so i started developing modalities (rather than scales), harmonic shapes (rather than chords) and considering axis (rather than tonal centre) and therefore orbits, pathways, nodal points between orbits. we’re not lost in space here, this is not music of the spheres, nor a nihilist chromatic hell, however, i had to detach from traditional approach to tonality and think in terms of interval relationships – in order to be able to move freely between paths, while retaining a narrative logic, that is without sounding completely aleatory, chromatic or just random.
of course, it takes a long time to assimilate all this method in my playing, to be able to improvise with it, particularly as i do not have a mathematical nor analytical approach when playing. free flow is essential to creativity i believe, and one way to detach from predictable structures is to ‘walk away from the expectations of the world’, as is expressed in another article you can find in this blog.
this approach also has taken a long time to develop, and i found that some aspects of it started to show in the solo work i have been documenting as ‘sounding out‘.
more recently, i have taken this to the studio, and we are now back to where this article started.
so here are a few pieces that i have recorded using sets of chords and beats, which of course are all arranged in advance using live, and then improvised saxophone lines over the top.
some of these were recorded a while ago and explore simple ideas and remain very melodic.
and i do like messing with beats and groove, even improvising bass lines on the keyboard of my laptop (yes, right…)
other tracks were developed differently; for example, the following piece actually started with a saxophone improvisation, to which i later added keys and bass, allowing me to leave much space, and follow the feel of the narrative improvisation.
and more recently still, the saxophone is now exploring new structures over simple tonal background. i quite like the wobbly feel of that nasty reaktor synth – this is a nice change to the traditional keys set up i have been using. this is not modal music, and perhaps more open ended, as it is closer to the drone on indian raga.
and coming back to the more traditional quartet sound, which a live group could be playing, with drums, bass and keys, but this time using harmonic shapes more suited for the structural abstraction of saxophone improvisation… an extract from a longer piece, this track is more of a demo in a single modality, with the multiplicity of harmonic options implied:
to finish with, a couple more pieces hot from the press…
as usual, i hope you enjoy listening to this work, and would love to hear your thoughts and reactions…