An Arkady in Public?
12 Thursday May 2011
Follow-up to the previous Daily Arkady post. Normally, a Daily Arkady is a private affair – something just between you and the walls of your practice room, although there is no reason that a DA couldn’t be a terrific warm-up and/or technical development exercise for two players. Improv of any kind – from whole notes on – is much more interesting (and hence easier to show up for, do, and continue) in a social context, i.e. with somebody. The tough thing about this on the classical side of the tracks is that 1) it’s very tough to find a partner (since no one ever receives any training or encouragement to do so, or acknowledgement that such a thing even exists, for that matter) 2) we’re so used to flying solo, 3) it’s fun (and thus of suspect value) 4) most of us have solo titanium-plated warm-up and/or tech routines that we have done since cradlehood that we can zip off and why change? 5) who ever heard of warming up with someone?
Duo improv is a great idea, but I’m getting off track here (which sometimes leads to the most interesting discussions. So: later).
I want to ruminate about the title idea: taking the usual private Daily Arkady public. Even if you are one of the brave and creative souls who sprinkles some Arkady-style musical and instrumental exploration into his/her daily (or weekly, monthly, etc) life, you may blanch at the thought of Arkadying in public. We (classical players) like the idea of knowing ahead of time exactly what we are going to play, chapter and verse. No surprises. Otherwise… we might… make a mistake! Or be boring! Or be boring while making mistakes! Eek! If we back up a bit and see what really happens, as horn players (and perhaps some of the rest of you), we have surprises all the time when performing. A microlapse of attention and, presto, an “unexpected result”, aka clam. Most of the time these are clamettes and very few are any the wiser, but few performances go exactly like that unchanging CD(s) we listened to while preparing. Absolute security is an illusion. Stuff happens. Manageable, microstuff, mostly (a real, big, juicy splooie-ooie-ooie in public is rare, but they still happen now and then to almost everyone), but it’s tough to be perfect. You take losses in quantity operations. We’re supposed to be pretty perfect – the standards in performance are not lower for horns than other instruments – so the result is a lot of stress, a lot of wear and tear on the organism. Matching the CD has made the ship of music drift far from its launching point (to coin a vague metaphor), the origin and reason for being of music: personal expression.
Side B of the Perfection CD, the one where we never go, the one with dragons and lions and tigers and bears and a lot of oh my, the one that gets back to personal expression, is where the Daily Arkady lives. The Arkady is the antidote to the part of horn playing (solos, orchestra) that is often a toxic mix of stressful and boring (sometimes orchestra work is thrilling, but working with good colleagues, teaching on the side, and/or getting a paycheck accounts for more of the attraction to the life if you’re in a day-in day-out orchestra job. A once or twice a month gig is quite different). Which begs the question: why go public with an Arkady? For the few who have sampled and reveled in the soul-saving pig-in-a-puddle fascination of Arkadian exploration, why taint it by mixing it with the stress of public performance?
I wonder if curiosity about that question was the reason that the first piece on my recital last week was “Ode to Arkady” for Horn and percussion.
Theoretically, a public Arkady – i.e. making up the whole tune at the time in public during the performance – is stressful and scary because you don’t know what is going to happen. What happens, as it turns out, is a little of that – enough to splash a mild charge of adrenalin into the mix – but is mostly a kind of sublime fun. The key to it all is: remember that you are the one choosing the notes. You simply choose a place to start (a rhythm, a note, a motif) where you are comfortable. Then follow it, develop it, try stuff, sometimes drift out to the edges of the possible. It’s about listening, not note-ing. It’s like talking about a subject that you like and that you know a lot about. Only in public. It helps to consider the audience not just a phalanx of mean-browed glaring editors, savagely and gleefully noting your mistakes with indelible red pen during the performance, but rather as an interested conversation partner, a great conversation partner who listens raptly to what you have to say, knowing that you are free-forming, focused on following the flow as it unfolds. Telling a tale to a willing listener is easy and comfortable. That transforms the potential scary part into fun, flow, and fascination.
For the sake of variety and interest (both for me and the audience), I added two percussion players (who were actually two very versatile grad horn students – thanks, Dan and Evan!) on shaker and mini-congas. We agreed on the following form: I would start solo; at some point I would nod to them and they would create a groove in 4/4 for me. At some point later, I would signal again; they would stop and I would do more free solo playing. Another nod, and they would play in 6/8. At the end I would play some kind of obvious ending and that would be that. And so it went. I actually don’t remember much of what happened (haven’t heard the recording yet), but I do remember that it was fun and not hard. I’ll have to listen to the recording to see if it was actually any good, but from the applause and later comments, it seemed to have been ok. So I found out that I could sail over the horizon and not be eaten by dragons…
Which isn’t to say that a spontaneous performance doesn’t take preparation. On the contrary, you have to be prepared for everything/anything. The performance is a snapshot of where you are right now, technically and musically. It is a great motivator to keep working on technique. Traditional technique studies end with the stuff you whip through – same stuff every day – in your slick routine, 2-3 octave scales, up and down, etc. Fine and dandy, but very limited and not terribly useful when it comes to Arkadying, where it’s handy to be familiar with many, many more ways of dealing with melody, and – what comes up little or not at all in traditional workouts – throwing in different note values (when was the last time you played your scales as something other than a string of 8th or 16th notes?), accents, meters, rests (!), varied articulations, etc. You can (and should) play an Arkady any time at any stage or your development – rank beginner to total pro, and at most stages you could play a public Arkady if you have done enough of them on your own and feel comfortable with the process. Even a beginner could play one at a recital – I’ve heard of piano recitals like – where the pipkin plays first a Pollywollydoodle level prepared solo followed by an Arkady. No one expects a 6th grader to knock out a spontaneous Adagio and Allegro; the audience will be delighted by the novices heart-felt efforts and be amazed by the fact of spontaneous music. They may expect more from a pro doing the same thing, but again, the player gets to choose the notes and there doesn’t have to be a blizzard of notes to have an interesting and beautiful piece (if speed were the only esthetic measure, then, say, all theatrical acting roles would be filled by auctioneers). All that is really needed is some experience Arkadying (to learn music from the inside out, to learn to be able to think in music and not just recite) and a modicum of courage to do it. It shouldn’t have to be courage. It should be: of course. It’s natural. Just like conversation, like storytelling. Listen carefully, keep your ego out of it, and every note will suggest the next note. Easy.
I think it was Virgil Thompson who answered the question “How do you write American music?” with “Just be an American and write any way you want.” How do you improvise, in public or otherwise? Just be yourself and talk about stuff (in music) that interests you.
What a concept.