Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Basics

So, what’s this impro music thing all about, anyway? I’ll assume anyone reading this has a working knowledge of improvisation (and if you don’t, there are plenty of articles you can read).

The musician for an impro show is one of the creative roles, working with the performers, composing and performing music on the fly. At the same time it’s an always-alert tech role like the lighting and sound folks (if you’re lucky enough to have dedicated folks for that).

Generally, the stuff we do falls in to one of three categories: mood music, musical scenes, and supporting the MC. Make sure you memorise these categories. There’s an exam later.

Mood music

Probably the primary purpose of the musician is to provide mood music behind a scene, to strengthen the emotions the players are demonstrating. This is very much like television or movie music where there is a score playing behind dialogue or events on-screen. As a scene evolves, the music evolves with it.

In impro, there is no pre-planning, so all this stuff happens off the cuff. When a scene opens with a player skipping through a field of daisies, imaginary pigtails flying, the musician will be leading with some, er, happy skipping music... music that wouldn’t be out of place in the opening scene of the Smurfs. A scene featuring an athlete training ahead of a big competition might call for something powerful and dramatic, something with a sense of anticipation, eg Eye of the Tiger. The evil genius scientist working on his latest attempt for world domination? Could be horror-type music, or perhaps silent-film-just-tied-the-damsel-to-the-train-tracks music if the evil genius is a bit comical.

There are plenty of times when the right music to play is no music at all. More on that in a later post.

The music can add a lot without being intrusive. My rule of thumb with this sort of music is this: if someone noticed you were playing, you’ve failed. Not that you should have the volume down to zero or anything; you just want your music to fit the scene like a glove, and support the scene, but not draw focus from the scene.

Musical scenes

Sometimes music is a central feature of a particular game or scene. Songs, Operas, Musicals, Soundtracks, they all involve the musician quite heavily. In these sorts of scenes the muso is really the extra player in the scene, collaborating with the players on stage, instead of just reacting to them. The music is part of the focus of these scenes.

These games really involve the musician and actors creating a bunch of real musical pieces, with (hopefully) structure and melody to fit the scene. For example, in (say) a four-minute Musical, you might have three or four 30-second songs, each with a distinct beginning, end, structure, and overall vibe and signature. On a great night the audience will file out humming one of the songs. (I find the songs that are remembered aren't remembered for their catchy hook; they're remembered for the part they played in the development of a character, and the quality of the music/singing just supports that.)

I've used the word "games" a few times. Many impro groups choose to play free-form scenes rather than games. They’ll often still feature music in their scenes, just not as part of a set musical game. The long-form musical is pretty popular, and a lot of fun to perform.

MC support music

At the end of the day, your group is putting on a show, and the audience is there to be entertained. The MC has a MASSIVE job to do - getting a show started and getting the audience on board, wrangling the actors, encouraging an audience reaction at the ends of scenes (hopefully clapping and cheering, and hopefully not throwing stuff), and wrapping up at the end of the show. The MC has to frame everything, keep the show moving, and basically stitch a bunch of entertaining but disconnected stories in to a cohesive show. Sometimes the MC is wrangling professional performers... sometimes they're wrangling enthusiastic high school kids without much performance experience.

The muso needs to be right there with the MC, supporting them in whatever they're doing. When you’re trying to shift the audience out of waiting-mode and in to participating-mode, filling the room with music while the MC is kick-starting the show is vital!

All of the MC’s work benefits from having a muso actively listening and contributing appropriately. With the music, you’ve got a production. Without it, as Roger says, you’ve got a cruskit.


So, if you’re providing the music for an improvised show, when do you get a break, anyway? Bad news for you - you don’t. Although there will be times when you’re not doing much, you’ll need to be on duty and alert for the whole show. But hey, you're here because you enjoy impro, right?

1 comment:

Dan said...

>>When you’re trying to shift the audience out of waiting-mode and in to participating-mode,

This is a really fascinating way of phrasing this concept. I really like it.

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