Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pipa and improvisation and just put up the last piece here, Example1, which uses both traditional (wooden Chinese) pipa and a 1965 Teisco electro guitar (with non-humbucking pickups) tuned, with four strings, to pipa tuning. The difference between the instruments is amazing, even though I'm using some of the same chords; what ends up happening is exploring different resources. The Chinese pipa is noisy and noise is part of the playing, particularly in the military style. Here, to be honest, I'm playing poorly; I'm tired and stressed from the day. The electric guitar/pipa is smooth and fast and burbles but loses the sound of the 'hollow body' or natural resonances; it feels more like an appliance than a living organism. I recognize the romantic fallacy in the description, but it does come through actually in the muscle memory used for the two instruments, and the relationship of the flesh to the wood and strings. I also try to stay away from 4/4 or enter it just briefly and then back out; the tempo to is highly varied. If anyone wants to use this, please do! I'll be on myself to work with others, just not for the next couple of days (I'm preparing for an online performance in Second Life). Enjoy. The other piece is saz, which I love, and which I've tuned lower since the recording. If you're not familiar with these instruments you can find them on Wikipedia; if you're ever interested in purchasing one or the other I can advise you.

On improvisation - Improvisation for me is a kind of philosophy, a way of structuring time in relation to material objects, and, at the same time, 'tending' those objects. I'm interested in the history of the instruments I play, which feeds directly into their phenomenological relation with the body; they're not neutral but express both the internal world of the instrument, and the resonances of the room, as well as the manner of the body's fit. The oud for example is awkward, and if you lean your head against it, the vibrations dominate, as they do for example on the viola. All of these instruments, even the electric one, are acoustically much more complex than people realize - the bridges vibrate and twist in complex patterns, for example, especially with bowing. Think of the instrument as a living thing (that fallacy again); affecting one area or dimension or section of it, affects all the others. There's an amazing book, The Violin Explained, - which goes into the details of just this single instrument.

Finally I've noted subjectively, because I play very fast, that time seems to compress when I'm playing - this is a very real sensation - I'll do something that feels slow, and seems to take hours, and it will all be over in ten minutes or so. So I've had to adjust my time sense consciously, realizing that when I'm playing at tempo X, I'm hearing a different tempo than the audience. -

More later


  1. btw Alan I downloaded your Example 1 (pipa/guitar/etc) piece add added my sounds to it... up at

  2. I like the way this adds bass and depth particularly to the acoustic pipa (listening to it now), but it also adds a rhythm which takes the complexity out of it (and out of the electric guitar pipa as well), since I'm not following a rhythm - I try as much as possible to get away from steady rhythm as you know. So it becomes a lot simpler. I like the way the bass interacts with the higher notes of the electric; were you listening while you were playing or just combining them? I'd like to hear what you could do with two things - playing only up the neck on the second octave - and refusing to use a straight-forward rhythm. It might work! It might be a catastrophe!

    When I play with Chris Diasparra, he's often out on his own but there are gaps and I've got gaps as well where we align ourselves to each other. It works well.

    Have you tried bowing the bass?

  3. Alan: I don't have a bow, so have never bowed a bass. Let's try that next time we're together at yr place? Also, regarding this comment--"playing only up the neck on the second octave"--I presume this means playing notes up near the pegs, but not sure what you mean about the second octave... maybe you could clarify? As I think you know, I've played bass on & off for 30 years but have never been trained-- it's entirely intuitive-- & I don't know anything technical about it (only sound & feel)...

  4. Hi Chris, it's just the opposite, playing only nearer the bridge. The octave divides the string in half - you have the octave harmonic at that point, which is the same as the note. It's 12 frets from the peg-end (the nut). So it's playing only very high up. On the saz or viola or violin, you can go up almost three or more octaves that way, playing closer and closer to the bridge. For whatever it's worth, older Baroque violins like the Strads only went up maybe an octave and a half; a lot of them have had modern necks put on, so they can go much higher. The Met has examples up now in their music instrument collection.

  5. Alan~ i had a nice 3 hour session earlier today, & I did indeed figure out exactly what you meant by where the higher octave is-- i should have waited before posting that (even if I don't mind sharing my ignorance about some of this stuff) - but glad to have confirmation on that from you.
    The strums i did today turned out pretty well, i thought, 2 1-track samples are posted, as well as another multitrack piece. the strumming part seems better now that i've had a little practice.
    It's funny, but I'm really learning quite a bit about the instrument & strings thanks to your (pl.) feedback, so it does feel like a class...

  6. can you give the urls of your new pieces? hate to sound stuffy like that but I'm running around like crazy - they're on soundcloud towards the bottom, top? thanks, Alan, apologies -

    meanwhile have been working on saz and viola - haven't bowed for a while but it's coming. love the sound. the saz is the cura, the smallest, which makes it a bit difficult, lots of close-knit frets -

  7. Alan (et al.),
    my SC is
    latest tracks at top
    ok, cf

    1. Thanks for this. I like the top one the best, I think a combination. You tend to hold these rhythms straight-forward with the same beat - two exercises if you don't mind, that might work - one is to play as fast as possible without a beat at all - making sure the notes are clear - and the other is to play at normal speed without a beat - so that you begin to see the instrument not so much as a background pulse but as an improvisational voice - you did some of that with the strumming pieces. Maybe try and combine them with the violin pieces Peter put up? I know when I play with Chris Diasparra or other sax players, I try and break up what I know as much as possible; it's too easy for me to fall into a groove, especially on the saz for example, where there are all these consonances that I can leap to. On the viola I have to be careful that finger patterns don't take over. I was reading today about learning jazz piano and the difficulty people have differentiating between the fourth finger and the little (fifth) finger, getting them to work independently. For me, sometimes I feel I'm getting somewhere if it begins to hurt, and if I find myself in unknown territory so I don't quite know what I'm doing. Or I'll deliberately play a wrong note or wrong note sequence to find a way to fit it in. Or go silent for a while and see what I remember before the silence and how to use that to bridge the silence. Things like that - Meanwhile I just heard my violin go out of tune...

  8. Alan,
    Thanks as always for the feedback. In yesterday's session I was trying not to hold the same beat throughout the jams, intentionally breaking up the sound patterns (as a result of your previous feedback). I may still have a ways to go with that, but it is in my mind...
    I couldn't find a way to download any of Peter's mp3s, but I am hoping to be able to acquire some of them, somehow, before long...

    ok! cf

  9. Hi Chris, I haven't heard much from Peter recently - checked his site and couldn't find a way either to download them; hopefully he'll make them available? The code leads to another layer. With my stuff at - it's easy to download but more difficult to get these directly from .

    I hope Peter comes around and Lawrence soon and Bjork, D.Einstein ? I'm not sure why there's not more activity here, but perhaps soon people will join in!