Just Making Things Up

@Rodrigo at it again. excellent read.



Glad you dig it.

Was interesting writing it as it’s almost turned into a “greatest hits” of my PhD thesis, though that wasn’t the original plan.

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i had visceral responses to each section-- thinking back to earlier days when i did a lot more group improvisation. incredibly observant and well written-- thanks for putting it together!

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@Rodrigo, since you brought up comedy/theatre improv, it made me curious to know if, in your dfscore adventures, have you tried employing narrative explicitly as a compositional framework?

I have had some musical experiences where I have found that explicitly using storytelling as a guide for both composition and improvisation, turned out to be a great way to avoid those moments of focusing on form at the expense of musicality. It can be a lot less tempting to follow up “quiet” with “loud” (and lose musical nuance) if you also have to ask yourself, “why?” or more specifically “how does this change in dynamic serve the story we are telling through our music?” Basically, getting performers to focus on “how do my actions serve the story?” rather than “how do I show off my neat tricks of musical form?”

Seems to me that there is much potential fruit to harvest in the idea of mining theatrical improv strategies for direct application to music improvisation.


[quote=“jasonw22, post:4, topic:2719”]
there is much potential fruit to harvest in the idea of mining theatrical improv strategies for direct application to music improvisation.
[/quote]interesting but very apt comparison…insightful observation @rodrigo

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I’ve not worked with (text/spoken) narrative explicitly other than in the case of lyrics, but those generally are complimentary, or the very least, another layer of information, rather than a defining characteristic of the musical layer.

I TOTALLY agree that there’s tons of stuff to harvest from theatre/comedy improv. In a biiiiig way. I write about theatre/comedy improv a bit in these two blog posts, but I don’t go into a great deal of depth.

A bunch of years ago, back when I was initially getting into this kind of thinking, I tried applying many of the theatre improv games to music, and the ones that were explicitly narrative-based didn’t seem to translate as well. Unless you get into really obvious musical material/direction or build up massive metaphors, narrative can just fall apart, as a directional thing.

I plan on writing a whole (longish) blog post about that very subject at some point, drawing more parallels, including some analysis stuff, and talking about tons of exercises that can be useful. I’m surprised it’s not talked about more.

If anyone has any interest in this subject I can’t recommend Truth in Comedy highly enough or The Upright Citizens Brigade Manual (which I haven’t finished reading yet).


Would love to read this! as a former theatre kid and someone who’s spent a lot of time with improvised music (albeit not recently), I’m surprised I haven’t really taken the time to zoom out and explore the parallels/differences between the two and how the language of one might translate to the other.

I’m going to read both of those books, thank you for the recommendation.

I only have one experience to relate about narrative-driven musical improv, and given that it was a couple decades ago, I don’t entirely trust my memory to be reliable (it’s possible my mind has embellished our successes from those long ago times). I was in a bellydance troupe, as a drummer and clarinet player. We had two other drummers, and many dancers. Someone wrote a bit of a story about wandering the silk road, a few words spoken before we began to play. In addition to that light narrative framework (much of which was never actually spoken to the audience and was simply shared among the performers during rehearsal) us musicians also had the movement of the dancers to focus our attention, intention, and action.

That one performance turned out pretty well, as I remember it. It was a New Year’s Eve, and for whatever reason, we played until about 12:15am before anybody noticed we had missed the moment. Talk about a dramatic ending to the improv, it was frenetic beats and dizzying melodies with a distinctly middle eastern flair one moment, hugs and kisses and popped corks in the next.

Maybe narrative isn’t exactly it, but I guess where my mind is going is trying to understand what is it about music that makes it musical? Why do audiences respond to some music as a “song” that they can relate to (and dance to, or sing along with, or even play along with) and other music as “boring”, “bag of tricks”, “predictable trope”, etc? I think it’s much easier to point at the bad thing and say “bad thing”, but maddeningly more challenging to point at the good thing and explain precisely why it works.

I guess there’s a fundamental thing if music is something that communicates something else, or is a thing in and of itself.

(similarly if music is something that is inside of you and you realize it, or it’s something else external to you. (this has interesting implications with algorithmic composition as there’s no “inner ear” to that, as it’s a different way of thinking about things))

Depends on the music I suppose, but much music does try to communicate something, and that can be easy to relate to. I don’t think most of what I do works that way, though it can nonetheless be expressive.

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If you ever need input from someone who has a tendency to drive from the abstract to the concrete, from the ephemeral to the tangible, towards something that attempts to communicate, that values being relatable, I’m here for you. :wink:

I agree it’s not strictly necessary, but I suppose I am personally inclined towards it. I wasn’t always as such. Back in those days of the bellydance troupe, I would frequently engage in passionate discussions with my main counterpart in composition about what motivated us as musicians. At that time I was trying to encourage him in more experimental jazz-inspired directions. I wanted to loosen up the preconceived notions of what music could be and just let it all hang out. Be daring and risky and try to find new territory to explore. I would get so tired of his reggae-on-repeat approach to music.

But for him, and eventually for me, it came down to including the audience as an important component of the performance. We ended up agreeing that there was value in familiarity. Familiarity that goes beyond the surface level recognition of a favorite tune, but rather familiarity that speaks to epigenetics, old muscle memory, memories in our cells and our bones and our brains, that uses music to connect us to something ancient and continuous.

I can’t imagine music (that people enjoy hearing) that isn’t both coming from inside you (at very least, in emotional content/context) and from something external to you (the millennia of received wisdom about standard music forms, for example).

I have to disagree that algorithmic composition precludes the application of an “inner ear” to guide the music. Perhaps not at a micro-level, but certainly at a macro-level “curation” of algorithmic output. Brian Eno talks a lot about this.

this is fascinating.

fwiw, I do improv comedy in Chicago (team at iO, indie trio and team at CIC). it’s really interesting to read how others interpret that work from other improvised disciplines. particularly striking about the back and forth above is the focus on narrative and that improv comedy has something to teach about it.

there’s actually been a huge shift in improvised comedy away from improv serving ANY sort of narrative. the best shows I’ve seen have teetered on the brink of absolute nonsense – the joy of being audience to these pieces is watching human beings listen and react honestly to each other as human beings. specificity and detail help the improviser to clear up ambiguity and PLAY, but any explicit focus on or leveraging of external factors or events or “inventions” that are intended to provide narrative structure to help make sense of what’s going on will 9 times out of 10 tank the scene. in that world, an audience isn’t interested in being able to walk out of a show and say “oh, that made sense. I understood what was going on.” as soon as a show tips that direction, you’re just watching performers fumble through already known plots and situations instead of human beings. and you could watch the former on TV, so coming out to see it live is a waste of time.

to that end, the best and most worthwhile shows are usually the ones that an audience member could NEVER explain to their friends. “this one guy just yelled ‘oh god, oh boy’ for two minutes over two other people who were dead” doesn’t capture the absolutely blinding brilliance of watching an improviser MAKE THE DECISION to react to the deaths of his friends in this way. it is the decision, to watch a human being arrive at a pure impulse and follow through on it, that is so much fun.

Herbert Brun wrote about jazz pretty severely because when he watched the performers, he could see and hear that they would eventually just cycle through aural touchstones – this lick, that motif – rather than allow themselves to be human beings (with instruments) listening and reacting to other human beings (with instruments).

tldr; the liminal quality of improv comedy (and its ability to support narrative if necessary) is not so much a hallmark of its current strengths. in fact, it’s become increasingly post-form, hinging on behavior making a show great rather than its concrete understandability. improvised music, which has less liminal tools in its corner, might be less able to break
form and still be appreciated by its audience (who is maybe still trained to ‘understand’ music). so maybe music improvisers need to push themselves to (as identified in the original piece) listen more purely, react more honestly. then, the self-supplied pressures of form and tradition become less validating – as the ego removes itself from the process.


Augh! I can viscerally sense the truth of what @dan_derks is saying but it pulls the rug out from under the story I was telling myself!

I guess it’s the nature of jazz to do exactly that.

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Yeah that totally makes sense, and the same is VERY much true in musical improv (or at least the kind that I like). A lot of what I enjoy about improv is how the performers interact with each other, not so much the what of what they do. The sounding results can be interesting, and can be appreciated in their own right, but the interaction is what I’m most in to (and hence focused a lot of my music making on, as can be seen in the blog post).

That’s also really interesting about the “post-form” improv. Curious what that means for long-form structures in terms of the mechanisms/material that carries through scenes.

I would love to pick your brains about some more of this stuff at some point if you’re up for it.

The “inner ear” thing I meant more in that you put systems into play, rather than realize the “sounds you already hear”, as a way of working. And definitely a curatorial thing. There’s a great idea I encountered recently kind of about this by Lev Manovich in that a database is the next art form. I don’t like the prior/next-ness of it, but I like how this relates to curation, especially in a technological age.


always up for it – wrote the above on my lunch break so glad it had some discernible clarity! very excited about these kinds of conversations.

I’ve also brought up your work to other comedy improvisers and can crowdsource others’ thoughts if that’d be helpful.


That would be fantastic!
If you’re up for it, it would be great to have a skype/chat about improv stuff in general, just to talk ideas/parallels, and once I get into actually writing the blog post, it would be super useful to bounce some of the specific ideas of you (and/or other improvisers).

(independent of this, it would be great to talk about decision stream analysis too if you’re into it)

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pm’ing right now!..

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