Thematic Improvisation Part 2 – Making something out of nothing

In our last discussion I mentioned that we would be looking at a few ways to generate material to improvise with (or compose, for that matter). One of the ways to do this, which we will be discussing in this article, was influenced by serial compositions such as those by Schoenberg, Webern, etc. We will be looking at some of the ways we can take a set of numbers and derive a motif from it. But we will not adhere to the strict rules that the serialists set for themselves; we will allow ourselves the freedom to do whatever we want.

Dial it in

Picture this: Johnny the guitar guy is on a gig where the music is completely improvised and the leader has just looked at him to start a piece. Johnny starts to panic because he remembers the last time this happened he starting playing a funk ‘riff’ which caused a ‘jam’ to happen and The Leader sent him home. The Leader wants a thematic statement that amounts to more than riffing. How can we help Johnny? Tell him to think of a friend’s or business’s phone number and apply it to the tonal pool that he is in; from there he has a place to work from. What does this mean? Let’s have a look:

Let’s say that the number that Johnny came up with was 404-827-3470 and the tonal pool was in C major (CDEFGABC). The way this group of numbers maps to the scale (pool) is direct: The root, C, is 1, D is 2, etc. How do we handle zero? I treat it as a wild card, so it can be anything, which can add a bit of ‘spice’ to your thematic material. For now I am treating it as the minor third. You can treat it as the 9th, b9, #11, etc. So how would a melody look/sound that is derived from this? First, let’s look at it as straight 8ths over a C major triad (C-E-G):

Example 1

It has a pretty interesting sound against a C major triad, but let’s look at the harmony that this new melody implies by stacking each group upon itself and maybe a few inversions:

Example 2

So now we have a couple of interesting sounds but have not made music out of them yet. This is where we need to inject some rhythm to move closer to the goal of making music with it. In live playing this would be dictated by the current context (we will get into the idea of rhythmic improvisation in a future article), but since we are just theorizing let’s start with another device based on the phone number. Now we will relate the number of sixteenths in each note to the pitch of the note:

Example 3

For our wild card (0), I chose a duration of one 16th note and then four 16th notes, respectively.

The result is this: we’ve mapped both the pitches and the rhythmic value to the numeric sequence. We used 16th notes in the rhythmic mapping; try mapping with 8ths, quarters, etc.

Another way to quickly generate new material is to use the numeric values from the individual note durations to generate a new set of numbers. For instance, let’s say we have a melody in bars four and five that has this rhythm:

Example 4

If we are using 16th notes as the basis for our count we would come up with the following set of numbers from the above rhythm: 442 211 222 4 0 1 1 2 0, which would translate into this:

Example 5

Remember, we are showing it in 8th notes but you should make it musical by mixing up both the order of the notes and the rhythm. We can hear that this example is very common sounding, almost parochial. Let’s break it up a little and see how it sounds:

Example 6

Try to come up with permutations of your own. If you get stuck, email me and I will send you some of mine. Don’t feel bound by these suggestions. If you hear that the group of notes would sound better by changing it or adding a note, then do it. The generated note group is only meant to give you something to jump from, not constrain you.

Try using some of these devices to get you through rough areas in composing and improvising. Not all of them will sound good, but enough will that it will be worth the time. At the very least it will often lead to a new idea, if not an entire masterpiece. Think of how many people are in your local phone book and all of the musical ideas that this could initiate!

Keeping the basic principle in mind that we discussed here, try applying it to formulas from your calculus class or license plates from your car or neighbors car. It will be left up to you to figure out how to map the less obvious correlations between odd characters and the music. For instance; not all of the characters from a tag of LZM 4A2 would readily map out. This is where you have to be creative!

In our next article we will discuss how to break apart common licks and find a new truth in them as well as other devices to aid in finding new note combinations. In future articles we will look further into the delicate art of developing a theme over the span of multiple bars.

Also check out… Thematic Improvisation Part 1