(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
There’s something unique about writing performance art that I don’t really think has a corollary in other art forms. If you make a painting, that’s your expression from beginning to end; same as with writing a book. But if you’re writing for an ensemble, your idea has to go through someone else’s brain and then out through their body for it to be complete. So, if you’re writing a play or a violin concerto, your lines will be given interpretation by someone who’s not you—at the end of the day, it’s a collaboration between composer and performer as to what a piece will sound like.
This is either a super great thing or something to be tightly managed, depending on your personality and what you want your art to be. I can certainly understand micromanaging a performer, or at least giving them extensive notes as to what you want their execution to be, but I tend to not to do that. One, because my ideas aren’t always The Best Idea and I want everyone in the group to feel comfortable with speaking up—which increases the odds of a Best Idea coming out. Two, because I want the groups I’m leading to sound as good as possible, which generally occur when everyone sounds like themselves. This can only happen when I’m not trying to make them sound like something else (I can direct them to the goal, but not just tell them where it is and expect them to know).
The difficulty of writing for a group of musicians is only compounded when the group is a bunch of improvisers—and made even more interesting when the group is populated by free improvisers, or people who can operate with the total absence of precomposed structures. Sure, writing for hard bop quintet technically counts as ‘a bunch of improvisers’, but the composer can still control the situation pretty tightly/everyone in the group knows what’s going to happen next.
If you want to write for a situation that will be mostly improvised, how do you do it?
There are several strategies I like. I often mix-and-match inside a given piece, because when I’m writing for that kind of group, I’m seeing myself less as ‘I have written this idea’ and more of ‘I have arranged this situation’. Really, all these strategies do is get the right people in the right spot to make something happen.
1) Use Your Words
This can take many different avenues:
- Writing on the part directions to a texture/timbre (guitar: switch between very high and very low tessitura; piano: palm mute throughout; trumpet: only play harmonic series)
- Talking it through with your bandmates ("So this one is about when you really love someone how you can find a whole bunch of ways to be really excited about them", et.al)
- Writing a story out and playing down the page with your bandmates
Doing this allows you to organize the piece by what texture happens when, but also in a way that allows the musicians pretty broad autonomy.
2) Precomposed Areas
This one can look like:
- Melodic/harmonic/rhythmic cues that signal a change to a different textural area
- A short precomposed section/set of chords that is repeated over and over again and allowed to change drastically from the written page
- A preconsidered form (eg sonata form, an abstracted AABA, et.al)
- A theme that everyone plays together that serves as emotional/motific prelude to free improvising (note: this is by FAR the dominant method in free jazz)
Strategies from this category are the most familiar way to many musicians to get into free improvising, so they frequently get the best results (unless you’re dealing with HEAVY, high-level free improvisers, who tend to sound great no matter what the situation)
3) Playing with Ensemble Subunits
This one can be:
- One subunit plays in a tempo, the other does not/plays in a different tempo
- One subunit plays in a key, the other does not/plays in another key
- One subunit plays in a specific emotional context, the other plays in a very different emotional context
- One subunit plays off one motif, the other plays off a different motif
- One subunit plays, the other rests
These are great for denouments or finales—you can play two of the parts of the piece off against each other at the same time, the audience gets that they’re hearing the end, huge crash, curtain falls.
4) Use of Chronological Time
This one generally takes the specific form of:
- Play with your given motif/emotional context for a set length of seconds/minutes, then change (to a transition period, also measured in seconds, or to another motific area)
These situations can be written out in notation as well (eg. Ives, Ferneyhough, Penderecki), but I’m an improviser first and I personally either know very little or nothing about the techniques they used—or I actively work to create the same situations with improvisers in mind. Part of that’s selfish (I don’t know how to really make the things they wrote sound good without really thinking hard about it), but I’m also more interested in other people’s take on the situation than my own.
If I write it all out for you, how will I know what you think about it?