Make it up
For anyone who’s been paying attention to the raft of Leonard Bernstein centenary events going on this year, you’ve probably heard (at least once) someone singing the ‘Simple Song’ from his Mass, a rather curious music theatre piece from 1971. The lyrics, by Stephen Schwarz, begin like this:
Sing God a simple song:
Make it up as you go along:
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all.
Godly simplicity aside for a moment, making it up as you go along and singing like you like to sing are things that those of us in the classical music world don’t tend to encounter very often… or if we do, it’s within fairly clearly prescribed boundaries. Improvise around these notes until the cellos catch up with you; mutter these words on any pitch you like until the soprano has sung the following three phrases; play freely for twelve bars; that sort of thing. Perhaps its a graphic score where the notes and rhythms are up to the performer, but there will be a sense of justifying what you’re doing by finding a way to relate it to the images in front of you.
Last week, I went to a different kind of improvisatory event altogether: an entirely improvised musical. At a comfy pub in Brixton, six performers from Multiverse, the improv music group, called to their audience for possible locations for the show, and then possible titles. ‘Hip Hop, Your Honour’ being the winning suggestion, they then immediately launched into a one-time-only performance. We had choruses, moving solos, a lot of great gags, comedy dancing, lesbian romance, the encroachment of technology onto traditional secretarial roles… and (of course) on-the-spot rapping. Basically, it was brilliant.
Of course, making up something like that on the spot is not the same as making it up from absolutely nothing. There are, I presume, a series of basic ideas that the group already shares: the overall shape of a show and how many numbers, roughly anyway, you might aim for; that you’ll probably start with a chorus; that actors, once they’ve adopted a particular character, watch each other from across the stage to see who’ll come on next, and so on. The styles and genres of the accompaniment give the singers a sense of what they might sing (and the shape of the scene, in turn, might suggest the style in question to the pianist), the phrase structure is pretty regular, the harmonies seldom particularly wild so that singers can predict, for the most part, what shape of a phrase they might come up with to fit nicely.
But the risk factor, however well mitigated by these various devices, is still enormous. What if someone freezes? Or dries up? What if they can’t think of what to do next? What if the plot twists don’t work out? Sometimes, the performers told me afterwards, things do go wrong. But it’s improv – the more you do, the more you work out how to get around possible dead ends and difficulties. And it’s ironic, don’t you think, that making stuff up is something we are constantly encouraging children to do, yet when we become ‘serious’ or ‘grown up’, we seem to lose the habit. More’s the pity.
It was, in addition to a brilliant evening of music and comedy, real food for thought. When was the last time you took a risk like that? What about me? (The pianist suggested I should consider having a go sometime… I’ll think about it…) It’s a salutary reminder to take a chance and remind yourself, at the very least, that fluffing something is not actually the end of the world. Even – and here’s the kicker for classical musicians – if people are watching. Perhaps we could all do to have a little more improv in our lives.