Friday, October 17, 2008

Rest Awhile

If you're doing the music for an improvised show, you've got to be on the ball and ready to play for an entire show. Generally I'm busy whenever the MC is on stage; for most scenes I'm playing background music or actively participating in a musical game. But there are often times when I'll stay quiet, because it's what the scene needs.

There are a few situations where I usually won't contribute any music.

In a very busy scene with, say, 4 players on stage, adding music can split the focus somewhat. In a Triggers for example (ok, not the most artistic of games, but very popular at Youth shows), you might have nearly all of the players up at one time, to maximise the chance of setting off someone's trigger. The audience is paying attention to the touching/speaking/motioning to fire the trigger. Layering an extra level of busy-ness on the scene with music only clutters it further.

I find at Youth Theatresports shows, where the kids have sometimes had next to no training, it's pretty common for every member of a team (sometimes 6 of them!) to leap on stage at the start of a scene. They can spend the scene pretty much getting in each other's way, splitting the focus, and drowning some genuinely funny stuff with chaos. I consider it the musician's duty to keep right out of their way, and not contribute to the noise.

Sometimes scenes establish their own particular rhythm, like Poem. I'll often stay completely out of a Poem; asserting my own rhythm takes power and flexibility away from the players. I've seen musicians play little tags at the end of a line or a verse, I guess wanting to contribute but not wanting to overpower the verse; to me, those sorts of tags are just distracting, like the muso waving their arms every six seconds and shouting "I'm still here!"

When it comes to truthful scenes, I'm pretty old-school - no music please. In an over-the-top melodrama, music works a treat; if you're really driving a Truth scene properly you probably want to stay out of it, to allow the characters and the dialogue to have the biggest impact. (I don't get to see Truth scenes very often any more, since most of the shows I do are non-theatre venues, and Truth just doesn't seem to fuel standup-like bar audiences.)

Sometimes you just *know* that the scene doesn't want music. Musical games demand music, right? That's the format of the game, right? I will sometimes leave a singer high and dry to sing a solo, a capella; for the right singer at the right moment, if the rest of the scene had music, the contrast can be incredibly powerful.

A most dramatic example of that was in an Opera one night, featuring Andy Foreman. Andy's one of those players I paid money to go and watch, week after week, before I got involved with impro. After working with him for 17 years, he remains one of my all time favourites.  He's incredibly engaging and clever, can pull off the subtle and the over-the-top, and tremendously skilled at what he does. He's always giving amazing performances that improvisers and audience members talk about afterwards.

In an Opera last year, towards the end somehow his character inadvertently caused some kind of catastrophe, resulting in him being the last person on earth. He finished the Opera with a piece where he was discovering he was profoundly alone, and emoted this amazing slowly building hysteria. The audience was hanging on every little sound that he made. I'm sure I could have accompanied him in a way that was musically appropriate, but I knew he could pull it off without music. Leaving him to sing on his own was just incredibly powerful.

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