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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Piano Improv

Software development can cause frustration: large projects run over, thorny problems seem intractable, bugs can be hard to find, leading to hours of hard, painstaking logical analysis.

And that's why I like to turn to music to gain perspective.

You can check out my relationship with music in my blog post, Music. You can learn a little bit about how I write songs in my blog post, Writing Songs. And now I will share with you some of the ways I create music ad libitum.

Years of Piano Playing

I taught myself to play the piano in 1973 and this led to years of constant obsession with piano-playing. I went through the catalogs of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and many other artists. But most of all, I learned to improvise.

I once read that Ludwig Van Beethoven was a master improviser. He could sit at the Hammerklavier and spin tales of music directly from his touch. I always found his music to be inspiring. I also read that Johann Sebastian Bach was a genius at improvisation. And also Schubert, Mozart, Franz Liszt, and others.

In 1973 I wondered if I could ever learn to do that. Just touching the keys of the piano that my parents had bought for my sister Susan to learn piano, but which she had rejected after a few lessons, I saw a tremendous regularity. A devilish simplicity and yet a complexity that defied simple rigorous analysis.

So in that summer when I was left alone in the house in Sunnyvale while the rest of the family went to New Mexico, I had nothing but time to myself.

I have mentioned that the upright piano we had was painted puke green and was tuned a half-semitone flat. The strings were too old to make them any sharper, which would require making them tighter. So it got tuned more flat so all the strings could at least be in tune with each other.

And when you teach yourself notes on such a piano, you can forget about having perfect pitch.

After going to college at Caltech, I found a piano in the practice room in Page house. I played it incessantly. And my abilities improved immediately. The quality of the instrument makes a huge difference, I found.

When I went to UC Berkeley in late 1975, it was as a music major, as I have mentioned. But in between assignments, I improvised. Sometimes 8 hours a day. This is what I meant by obsession.

There were a few years when I had to work and push the piano-playing aside, but I always returned to it. There was always just too much value to it, emotionally and intellectually. It's probably good I did, too, given the frustration capacity for the profession I finally landed in.

I played piano wherever I could find one. I found that the Yamahas and the Kawais were the best pianos. And in that generation, this was true. I played a Bösendorfer once, but I found it to be stiff and unexpressive. I also played Steinways but found them to be unremarkable and sometimes quite muddy. In retrospect, it was probably just how well they were tuned.

In the early 1980s I was improvising quite a bit, with quite a varied style. A little modern, a little freestyle. You can check out the following improvisation to see what I was playing like in September 1981. often my improvs are titled based on the date they were recorded, in this case 09-22-81 #1 shows it was the first recording I did on the 22nd of September, 1981.

As the 80s wore on, I continued to play and write pieces. Here is another improvisation that I worked into a full-blown piano piece, called Black Widow. This piece is much more structured and rhythmically interesting. My style was progressing.

Eventually in the late 1980s I got the Yamaha 7-footer that I use today. I also had, for a while, a Yamaha 7-foot Diskclavier, but I didn't like the way it worked. Yes, I had two grand pianos for a while. I'm serious about pianos, and I probably always will be. But I also worked with synthesizers. Including a weighted-key synthesizer that still works great after so many years, the Roland RD-500. Supposedly it was a roadie's dream because it was so stable and bulletproof. As a digital piano, it also featured various kinds of electric piano styles. In 1990, I played the following improvisation. This was when I was about two months into the secret work on Painter, before another living soul saw what I was cooking up. It is interesting to see the sonorous moods I had in those periods. This improvisation does a lot to tell you the story behind my early work on Painter: intricate, creative, and spontaneous. It's called 11-10-90 #2. Note: sometimes I recorded more than one improv a day, if I was on a roll.

My improvisation recordings are entirely unedited, so if I make a mistake: it's all on me!

Also from this era is an improvisation that features more interesting rhythm but also a melodic inner section that has a quote from one of my songs from the era (which I no longer have a recording of) called keys to your heart. It's not bad. It's called e piano improv, a rather undescriptive title it's true.

When I moved out by the beach, for a while I had a house with room for two pianos. It was there that I did most of my modern production work with ProTools. But I continued to improvise. Even in a smaller, more manageable house I still have a 7-foot grand. And I play piano every day. When I'm writing songs, I will improvise on the theme of the song. Usually I will work up the song and record it onto my iPhone which at least gets it down for posterity. My worst problem is that I don't record the songs that I compose from day to day.

So, the nature of improvisation is that most of it goes unrecorded, which is a pity when I do a particularly brilliant one. So maybe one in twenty gets recorded.

After 39 years of piano-playing, my fingers and my brain are entirely in sync. Does this mean every note is perfect? No. But it does mean that I can maintain a rhythm while modulating from key to key. All the chords have familiar hand shapes, so I don't really look at the keys any more. Sometimes I play in the dark, but usually only when I am alone.

How I Improvise

So, how do I do it? What is going through my mind when I'm playing?

If you were to watch, you would just see me sit down and play.

With my hands on the keyboard, I focus first on the key I'm playing in. And whether or not I want to start on a chord that is moving or stable. Moving chords are like sevenths: minor sevenths, major sevenths, inversions (particularly those with the seventh in the bass). This is because sevenths typically resolve into more plain chords in a cadence. Here we have an A minor seventh chord resolving into a D major chord. These chords also have very natural hand shapes to me, and I favor them. But, of course, they can be expressed in any key and their hand shapes might be a bit different. Also, suspended fourths are unstable, and tend to resolve fairly quickly.

Playing in different keys is important. At one point, in in the mid-80s, I forced myself to improvise in a different key each time I sat down at the piano. I had a little tally sheet. J S Bach used to do this, I suspect, since his Well-Tempered Clavier has two books with a piece in every key. Fréderic Chopin also did this with his Preludes and Études.

Anyway, it's also important to try out a few rhythms with a chord sequence I work out. And also to try a few chord inversions, so the notes on the top can begin to form a cohesive melody.

When it comes to the bassline, I will find ways to work chromatic descending bass into my improvisation. This sounds very good, and often forms a focus point for a chord sequence. Sometimes I put the third in the bass. Sometimes the seventh goes into the bass.

Here the bass descends to the seventh and down to the third of the C chord, to finally rest on F, with an added 2nd (G) added on top. This kind of sequence works best when the bass is very low indeed, perhaps one to two octaves below where I've written it here.

After a number of years playing, I have tried out pretty much all the chord sequences there are. But of course that is wrong because there are plenty of chord sequences that sound terrible. And I naturally avoid those after perhaps making the mistake of trying them. Once.

Another thing to remember is that the melody doesn't have to fit the chord. You may find that the melody contains suspended notes, or even notes that are entirely off-chord. This can be to great effect.

Chord inversions are of interest, when you are playing. They can help add color to the chord. And sometimes inversions are totally necessary in creating the feel you want.

Here I have shown some inversions of the C ninth chord, with the root of the chord (C) taken out. It's only fair that someone should play only four notes at a time, to avoid too much of a handful of notes. The one I favor lately is the third in the sequence, with the G being played by the thumb.

Ninth chords are in general interesting because they produce a thicker chord. In C alone, there are at least four interesting ninth chords. I have shown some of them here.

They really only differ in whether the E and the B are natural or flatted.

The C major ninth chord (or CM9) is bright, a bit dissonant, and often leads into a C chord by having the top two notes raise diatonically up to C and E.

The C minor ninth chord (Cm9) is soft and brooding. There is less dissonance because there is no B natural. But now the D and the Eb form a direct dissonance.

The C ninth (C9) chord has no semitone dissonance, and has a lush, cheerful sound. It is descended directly from the C seventh chord, but has an added D.

The C minor major ninth (CmM9) chord combines the darkness of the major chord with the dissonance of a C major ninth chord, and can be a bit ghastly and tragic.

So you can alter the color of your music by using the right chord. This is particularly so in the first chord of your verse. For instance, Pink Floyd, in their song Breathe, starts their verse off with an Em9 chord, resolving to an A chord. It is the minor ninth chord, with its sonorous sound, yet tainted by the added 2nd, creates the ambience of the entire song. In fact, that particular song has some of the most perplexing and powerful chord sequences in the repertoire.

A Question and an Answer

It has always been interesting to me, since improvisation and music generation is so completely hardwired into my brain, if it might not also be possible to write a computer program to do something similar. I think harmony is pretty easy to encode into a computer program. Indeed, in 1975 I did such a thing.

But it is an entirely different thing to encode the structure of music into a computer program. I am, of course referring to the high-level structure of music. The ABA format, the romantic period sonata form with its introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda sections. If we look at modern songs, there is the intro/verse/refrain/bridge/outro structure and all the common rearrangements of them.

My question is this: even if all these forms were to be faithfully duplicated by a songwriting program, would the computer be able to replicate the angst, emotions, and desires of the human composer?

The answer is simple actually. Such a songwriting program would not be able to write the songs. That would be the human user's job. Why do I say this? Because with Painter, our job was to accurately collect the artist's expression, and faithfully reproduce it, allowing the artist's style to come through. Because Painter and the computer running it are enablers for human creativity. They allow you to do more than you could do before.

And this is precisely what a songwriting program would do for a composer: enable them to compose bigger and better pieces, and let their emotions and creativity come through like never before.

And What About Improvisation?

Well, after many years of work at the piano, my brain is that channeler of creativity. That enabler of emotional expression.

Maybe Fractal Design Composer is what's needed. Maybe I can take my improvisational skills and build a program around it.

Maybe that's where music and me come full circle.


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