Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Songs on Rails

Songs may have set forms, even in an improvised show.

I find creating a new improvised piece of music to be wonderfully fun. It is dangerous and error-prone. Sometimes it can fail spectacularly - and sometimes you can create some amazing music, all the more amazing because you created it on the spot.

Do musical games in an impro show have to be completely unrehearsed? Nope!

There is a particular style of game where the musical structure is set beforehand; you take a set piece with a particular structure and melody, and put new words to it. One of the best-known examples of this is Hoedown from Whose Line. The actors all know the music and the rhythm, and can structure their lyric to match. In Hoedown's case it's basically taking a Poem, and putting particular timing and structure around it.

These songs remind me of those rides at amusement parks where you sit in a car, you have pedals and a steering wheel... but the car is on rails, so you basically go where the rails take you.

Another Whose Line game with the same sort of handle is the Irish Drinking Song. I did my first one of these ever tonight, working with the clever folks from EDGE Improv here in Brisbane. The song has a great formula, and it is pretty much guaranteed to work. Tonight's song probably wasn't a textbook execution (Geez Kris, you have one song to learn. One song!! Sheesh.) but when the folks on stage decided they were about to fail, they did it with full-on commitment, and that worked a treat. You know you've won the audience over when you see people who have drifted in to check out the show start singing along with the "Hidey-didey-didey" bit.

We perform Do Do Ron Ron quite a bit here in Brisbane. Same deal - set music, set rhythm, players know the format backwards and forwards, and pour their energy and thought in to the lyrics.

For me, personally, games with set music styles are fun, but not as appealing as a fully improvised song. It's not that they're bad; they have great entertainment value. It's more that they're... less risky. Risk vs reward, baby. If a game like this goes well, at the end I feel like... actually, it should have gone well, it was set up for success. Success isn't a bad thing (especially when you're trying to film impro for TV). I just find creating a successful song to be much more satisfying when you are working without a net.

I know of some groups that use more complex songs, with pre-recorded full instrumentation. I've heard bootlegs where groups do this and pull it off very well; they have rehearsed harmonies, and they set up choruses or areas of interest that you just couldn't do in a purely improvised song.

We seem to spend a great deal of energy thinking about whether or not the performance looked improvised. In many ways it's a great compliment to hear "That was great! But you rehearsed that song, right? Gawwwn, you can tell me!" One thing I like about the pre-recorded backing track is that there's no pretense that the music is improvised. The audience knows where the magic is happening - in the clever lyrics. The first few times I saw Whose Line do set songs, I was impressed; the integration of music and lyrics was flawless, and the musician wasn't breaking a sweat. Once I got to know the games better, and I realised the music was set, I felt a bit ripped off that they weren't completely improvised.

What if you have no choice? I find quite often if I'm working with a group that doesn't usually have a musician, they may have rehearsed a song to nail its style and structure. This happens a lot with youth players. I tend to get right out of the way for them - they know where they're going, and musical offers you make are likely to be ignored.

One downside to these games is that, if you really hammer them, they get old really quickly. Do Do Ron Ron falls in to this category for us. As a show-opener, it's absolutely fantastic. It introduces the players, it's fun, it introduces the idea that failure will happen and it's ok, it involves the audience, the tension grows to a natural climax... it's really hard to find something that is as rock-solid of an opener as Do Do Ron Ron. That means you play it a lot.

If you are tossing up about whether to include set songs in your lineup, try this: Do one, and see if the audience goes crazy. I'll bet they will.

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