Seeking Maximum Freedom: Notes on Improvisation
For the past ten years, pianist Cory Smythe and trumpet player Peter Evans have been pushing the boundaries of their creative expression through collaborative improvisation. At their late-night Mostly Mozart recital with keyboardist Craig Taborn on August 22, they unveil five world-premiere works, each with endless possibilities.
Gillian Campbell: For your upcoming concert, each piece includes improvisation. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Peter Evans: What we’re doing with this music is fairly normal to us. There’s written stuff and there’s improvising constantly in the mix all at the same time, which for us is a fairly natural way to make music, so it’s hard for us to delineate whether it’s one or the other.
GC: For someone who doesn’t know much about improv at all, the idea of going into an evening of music with some of that unknown is terrifying.
PE: Yeah, well we do it a lot! It wouldn’t be that interesting if we knew exactly what was going to happen. We’ve created these musical environments for ourselves so that we can do what we want to do. It’s more about that than anything else, I think. The environments are the “compositions,” so we’re making these weird, sometimes challenging environments where then we have the opportunity (or are forced, however you want to look at it) to make very free choices—in the moment, reacting to that environment.
"Eventually those guitar solo moments became more sophisticated."
GC: How did you first get started, get into this type of music?
Cory Smythe: It’s sort of been a slippery slope—when I was a kid I liked to make things up on the piano, and eventually I was making up more radio-friendly things, an approximation of stuff I was exposed to. It was the ‘80s so there was always a guitar solo moment, which I took advantage of in my playing. But eventually those guitar solo moments became more sophisticated as I got older.
PE: My parents were casual jazz fans and I got to play some of that music, and that was part of my education. Then at a certain point, I think once I heard stuff like Anthony Braxton and Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker and these people, Bill Dixon; when I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life, those figures seemed to be pointing the way a lot more. It seemed a lot more truthful than showing up and reading somebody else’s music, which I still do a little bit, but I guess I believe more in people doing their own thing.
GC: You’ve been playing together for ten years. What makes for a good improvising partner?
CS: It’s probably a little bit like dating, you feel like you’re interested in what the other person’s saying, and they seem interested in what you’re saying. There’s a sense of support.
PE: I want a musical relationship where there’s a sense of reaching for some unknown stuff. So you can try things in the musical arena that are kind of insane and maybe unreasonable. If you try them in your social life, you’ve ruined your life.
Like if Cory opened the door and I just started punching him in the face, it would be really weird! But there are certain kinds of unexpected behavior. I want to play with people who have strong, inimitable personalities, that’s sort of the main thing, that supersedes technique or any of that stuff.
GC: How do you use musical improvisation as a compositional tool?
PE: I think it is a compositional tool. I think the words are really misunderstood. Improvisation is a way of creating music, so that’s composition. I think what most people mean is notation, or something that’s fixed ahead of time. All the stuff we’re doing with this concert involves a layering of both fixed, notated stuff with improvised stuff. That’s really the dichotomy, because if we did a concert that was totally improvised, the composition would be made in the moment. It would still be a composition; it would just be done spontaneously.
GC: Do you use the portions of composed music as a kind of benchmark to keep you on track? How do those two elements work together?
CS: Often it is a kind of structure that we’re improvising over, or with.
PE: Some of the structure is cyclical. Like if you’re playing ping pong, there are certain boundaries that have to be maintained, the ball can only bounce in certain ways, but once all those things are maintained, the ball can go in infinite directions, people can do infinite things. So we’re maintaining and pushing against those rules and trying to have maximum freedom. But some of the pieces don’t work like that. Some of them will have something really fixed—call it A—and something else that’s really fixed, B, and we need to improvise a transition, morph A into B somehow.
So we’re not really operating on any cyclical time scale, it’s more just molding to something, which can be very free . . . as long as we know the other person also has B in their sights, and that we’re going to arrive there in several minutes. So that’s all we know, and then we have to just get there.
GC: You’re both classically trained. Do you think classical musicians can gain skills from developing more knowledge of improv?
PE: The word "improv" is built up to be this mysterious thing. "Improvisation" just means playing music. Almost every other kind of music—it’s pretty normal to just play something, to make something up. The idea that you have to play some written thing that’s scripted and that you play perfectly is actually fairly odd. Classical music is really an anomaly in world music; it’s not bad, it’s just a very unusual way to make music. So, yeah, being able to get off the page and to spontaneously create, I can only see that as a benefit.
GC: What are you looking forward to on Monday?
PE: The first performance of pieces like this is always kind of exciting. Also we know that we’re going to play them a lot. We just finished a round of music where we played it for almost two years, and we’re still finding new stuff in it and working on it, in the improvising parts. So to have the first performance and then know that in a year there’s going to be some really weird stuff happening in these pieces, it’s kind of nice.
GC: How long do you typically stick with a piece?
CS: I think just as long as it feels like there’s still something interesting to be gained by playing it.
Gillian Campbell is Manager, Rights & Media, at Lincoln Center.