Monday, October 27, 2008

My Evil Twin

Impro shows usually have a single musician doing the music. Can you get another musician in on the act?

Most of the time when I've done impro duo work, it's been me on keyboard, someone else on acoustic guitar. It's nice when the guitarist has access to some effects. (I love seeing someone putting acoustic guitar through overdrive, it sounds good enough to do the job, and it looks completely bizarre.)

For impro, guitar and keyboard/piano are nicely complementary - they have distinctly different sounds and characters.

I've been accompanied by a bass player for a few shows (Hi Jason!), and that's different again - the bass really drives the rhythm and lays a nice, er, base. (Jason apparently resembles me somewhat from behind, but a more prankable me apparently, so I'm not sure that he's ever going to gig with improvisers again.)

A solo impro musician has a lot of freedom, and can turn on a dime - they only have to communicate prospective changes with themselves. Probably the hardest thing about working in a duo is maintaining that flexibility to change the pace or progression or style or feeling across two people. It's very easy for the music to gain some momentum of its own, which might make for a better sound, but sacrifices the sort of flexibility that makes impro special.

Generally I find a duo works best when, at any point in time, you have a well defined driver. You might swap roles back and forth, but having one person essentially leading and the other person following works a treat.

I suppose the driver has the opportunity to be the "lead", playing embellishments etc, while the person accompaning has the responsibility for laying down the rhythm and the body of the music.

There's a communication overhead when you have more than one musician. While you're playing music, your hands are pretty busy, so you're pretty much left with verbal or facial cues. When I'm driving I find it easiest to call out changes - chord changes, tempo changes, starts and stops. ("C. Sit on C. Walk up to F. Same again, C to F. Now A-minor. Stay there. Here comes a stop - Stop!")

I also find it's good when both musos can make eye contact - you can convey a lot with facial expressions and head movements, even without setting up a code beforehand.

MC Support

When playing background music to support an MC, it's pretty tempting to jam based on an existing well-known song. I prefer not to do that, as discussed in The Famous Polka. I'd rather see someone set up a groove, and have the other persion join in. For something like end-of-scene music, as the end of the scene approaches, the driver might call a style (eg say "Blues in G"), and when the scene comes down, do a quick "3, 4" count and hit it.

Mood Music

For supplying mood music behind scenes, I often prefer to just let one muso have free reign, and follow the narrative appropriately. The other muso can come in with embellishments or support as required, but has to be prepared to get out of the way if a sudden change happens.

For mood music where you want to avoid calling out changes all day long, it can be useful if #2 can see what #1 is playing; if the keyboard player can recognise the chord the guitarist is playing, or vice versa, they can come in with embellishments or additions..

Musical Games

In some musical games, a bit of momentum in the music isn't a bad thing. For a song, a Singing Barman, a Do Doo Ron Ron, or something else that usually maintains a constant style, you can set up a really effective groove.

Other musical games that are a bit more dynamic (like Opera and Musical) are trickier; they're where getting some momentum can really kill you. These are the games where the driver and the non-driver need to be on the ball, paying attention to each other and the stuff on stage.






Having multiple musicians can add a lot to a show. It takes a little practice to get the balance right, but it's definitely fun and entertaining.

1 comment:

L said...

My favourite post so far :)

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