Friday, August 28, 2009

The art of improvisation

Joglaresa perform most of the songs here with only one pitched instrument (vielle or oud) and add only voices or percussion. With this instrumentation, we not only get as close as possible to the descriptions of professional slave-girl performers, but also achieve the improvisational spontaneity so crucial to music of this period. Music performed with large ensembles of pitched instruments requires an 'arrangement' that Joglaresa feels contradicts all that we know about the improvisational spirit of medieval and traditional music.
Belinda Sykes, who directs medieval band Joglaresa (photo below), and is professor of medieval song at Trinity College London, issues a challenge to string-centric early music ensembles in the sleeve notes of her new CD.

Dreams of Andalusia is a programme of the Jewish, Arabic and Christian songs that were performed by the professional singinging girls known as joglaresas or qaynay in Muslim Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. Accompanying the voices of Belinda Sykes and Naziha Azzouz are oud, tar, vielle, bendir, Andalusian tar, darabuka, shawm and bagpipes. Joglaresa may be musicological purists, but they also describe themselves as 'sounding more like a street carnival band than a solemn early music group' and Dreams of Andalusia explains why. Early music with a strong percussive content always sounds well on disc, and this excellent recording, which was made in the splendid acoustics of East Woodhay Church, Berkshire, is no exception. There are MP3 samples here.

But there is one mystery: the otherwise very informative sleeve notes do not explain why the recording was made in January 2000 but has only just been released on the independent Metronome label, or why it is missing from the label's website. I suppose with music that old another nine years doesn't make much difference. So both sides of the debate get an airing, here is a disc of arrangements of music from Arab-Andalusia, which I have to admit to also enjoying greatly.


Dreams of Andalusia was bought from Prelude Records in Norwich. I notice that Joglaresa are performing at the ever-innovative venue of the King of Hearts in Norwich on 18th December. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

4 comments:

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

I'm linking to and quoting from this post, which got me to reread it closely and was wondering if "vielle of oud" isn't a typo for vielle OR oud.

Pliable said...

Lyle thanks, of course you are right, it is now corrected. One finger copy typing those quotes is a real chore ....

Pliable said...

Email received:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcmOKLGF-vc

Conducting improvisation.

It just exists as a technique( serious schools) since 50 years.

Check it out.

BT

Jeffrey Agrell said...

I will be forever in your debt for clueing me in to Joglaresa (just as I am forever in Lyle Sanford's debt for the link to your site and post). I adore this music, the spirit, the flavor, the execution. I do have a head start - one of the pieces on my/our CD Mosaic (see www.msrcd.com/1158/1158.html) is in this style. When we were recording that tune, it was going well enough, but we thought it needed something, and we ended up getting a percussionist to add an improvised hand drum backup. Our CD is horn, cello, piano (a chamber music group for which there is no repertoire) taking medieval and Renaissance music and using it as a source for modern improvisation. The tune gives the improv structure and flavor and then we play as contemporary musicians, improvising in the spirit of the music of the time, but not trying to be authentic, whatever that is. Great fun, fascinating for both audiences and players. We only did one Sephardic tune, but I could play that stuff all night.

On another note: conducted improvisation. Thanks for the link - very interesting. Are you familiar with Soundpainting? SP was invented over 20 years ago by NY composer, conductor, jazz player Walter Thompson. Over many years he developed a system of gestures that enables live improvised composition in groups. There are some examples on YouTube - do a search for Soundpainting. I have a class "Improvisation for Classical Musicians" - nonjazz - that spends a bit of time on SP. It's a great way to get traditionally trained players improvising without having to learn jazz, which has a very steep learning curve.

Structure is a good idea for improvisation and is not at all contradictory with the basic principle, any more than having a topic of conversation is contradictory to the idea of conversing. It makes the improviser's job easier and makes the improv sound like, well, music. It might depend a bit on your definition of improvisation. Mine is: making your own decisions about what to play, but paying attention to your environment. I have been in improv sessions where no one listens to anyone else, which just gives a cacaphony of unrelated sounds, a very ugly mess indeed. Never again. I like to have a thread to put the pearls. Even if you don't discuss ahead of time what the improv is about, the first thing you do is try to establish some rules: a beat or pulse, perhaps a key, perhaps a timbre, a strong idea (motif), and so on. You listen like mad to what your playing partner(s) are playing and echo and/or respond to it, and there is a good bit of NOT playing as well.

Just like a conversation.