“Serious” Improvisation-Surfing the Third Stream

I’m writing a piece for string quartet and 3 percussionists. In this piece I want to have the players improvise in certain passages. This creates many challenges, not the least of which is how to notate improvisation. I’ve done this before in chamber music with some success using spatial and box notation, and mixing it up so no more than a few players are improvising at a time.

However, I don’t know who some of the players are, and I want to write a piece I can take to other ensembles, that’s approachable and player-friendly. I’m a bit nervous about what the players’ approach might be, probably unnecessarily though, because I’ve found that most modern players are well versed in many styles, having performed in jazz and rock settings, and having more than just classical music on their iPods.

I’m always curious how other composers might use improv in their work, and what success they’ve had in a jazz/classical hybrid, or what Gunther Schuller first termed Third Stream music.

I’m used to chord changes, and specific idiomatic and tonal jazz styles. This piece won’t swing, but some of it will sound like free jazz within a modern classical framework. Also, there’s no rhythm section per se, but I can evoke rhythms that lay down a framework within which to work.

I tried this sort of hybrid piece in music school, and I had players who refused to perform it. The thought of improvisation intimidated a few, but one backed out because he felt it would upset the serious classical teachers. How’s that for paranoia? But that was back in the day…

I’ll post some examples of what I come up with. I’d appreciate any comments or advice.

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
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10 Responses to “Serious” Improvisation-Surfing the Third Stream

  1. heylomusic says:

    Sounds like a very cool piece – and you worry too much! 🙂 Will it be mostly the percussionists trading off – or percussion strings alternating/together? I would think the string players would like more direction- but maybe they want to be free….!

    Love to see the examples…

  2. I was facing a similar problem with my piece for jazz guitar, jazz bas and string4tet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpEL8pFPa58 (score: http://www.joepvanleeuwen.nl/compositions/string-quartet-jazz-guitar-jazz-bass)

    The piece calls for the guitar to improvise 2 times. At the rehearals I found out the the 1rst violin can improvise on changes….my lucky day, I guess. So I changed the score around in such a way that improvisation for all the strings is optional. SO I pretty much leave it up to the ensemble that performs the piece to see if they want to add improvisation other than the guitar..

    • Scott Healy says:

      That’s a really good solution, and with software you can do a tweak, move solos around as necessary. I would assume that any guitarist these days can improvise, unless he’s a hard core classical guitarist, and from the looks of your piece it doesn’t look like a nylon string soloist would be right. Nice “Purple Haze” quote BTW!

  3. No classical guitar in this piece, indeed, this is intended for a steel strung jazz guitar.

    My inspiration came from a 1960 piece by US jazz guitarist & composer Jim Hall called “Piece for Guitar and Strings” which he recorded in 1960 on the record “Jazz Abstractions”. He uses (his) jazz guitar too, jazz bassist (all time great Scott LaFaro) and an string 4tet with an extra viola.

    I am working on a second piece in the format. i’ll trying getting Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe in there. Ok?

    • Scott Healy says:

      A second viola will enable 5 voice chords without double stops, it’s a great idea–hey, anything with “Hey Joe” is fine by me! What’s next–“The Wind Cries Mary”? I will find that Jim Hall record, I used to see him in NYC.

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